Self driving cars will be ready, but U.S. 5G networks won’t

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Manufacturers might have self-driving cars ready to roll in the next five to seven years, but how far they’ll roll will, in large part, be determined by 5G mobile network deployments. To support fully autonomous driving, where no human driver is needed and passengers can just kick back and ignore the road, fast broadband connections will be necessary.

Nobody knows yet how fast, but minimum service levels will depend on three speed metrics: download throughput, upload throughput and latency. All three will have to be better than what’s available via today’s 4G networks.

The chart above was published by GSMA, which is a trade group that represents mobile carriers around the world. It reckons that up and down throughput will have to be in the 10 Mbps range, with latency – the round trip time – in the 1 millisecond range, in order to support autonomous driving.

Continental is one of the automotive technology companies that has to actually invent and manufacture the equipment, and design the supporting platforms for self driving cars. It takes the GSMA estimate as a starting point, and stretches those specs: latency might not have to be so good – they’re considering a range of 10 milliseconds to 100 milliseconds – but speeds might have to be faster, maybe as fast as 100 Mbps.

Existing 4G networks can’t support those speed and latency requirements. The four major U.S. mobile carriers all have typical latencies well over 50 milliseconds. Their real world download speeds in California almost never hit the 10 Mbps mark, and upload speeds are significantly less than that, often by an order of magnitude.

Despite the hype from carriers and the Federal Communications Commission, there’s little indication that ubiquitous 5G networks in the U.S. will be there when the automotive industry’s technology is ready to go to market. You might be able to buy a self driving car by the middle of the next decade, but opportunities to take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel (or whatever controls it might have) will be limited.