Auto, tech executives: 5G-connected cars are exciting, but be mindful of issues

Forbes’ Julian Mitchell moderates the CES panel “Future of Connected Cars with 5G” Jan. 9. From left to right: Nissan’s John Schnoes; TomTom’s Corinne Vigreux; BlackBerry Certicom’ Jim Alfred; Flex’s Joan Vrtis; Mitchell.

LAS VEGAS — Tech watchers would be wise to await 2025, the year 5G cellular connection is likely to proliferate in the United States, with a dose of reality, auto and self-driving technology executives said in a panel at CES Jan. 9.

Auto and telecommunications equipment companies, in their drive to develop interconnected, self-driving vehicles by soaring into the 5G technology stratosphere, have yet to refine their vehicles’ features, such as safety, data privacy and accessibility, the panelists said.

“There’s a lot of technology to be developed,” said Joan Vrtis, senior vice president of innovation and technology integration at Flex Ltd., a design and development company that has worked with auto companies. “People need to be mindful that 2025 is not when the switch goes on and everything goes autonomous and everything’s 5G.”

What a 5G-reliant society will look like is still an open question, the panelists said, stressing the importance of planning ahead.

Carmakers are increasingly proactive in mapping out their development plans, but companies shouldn’t sacrifice customer experience for the hasty adoption of cutting-edge technology, John Schnoes, alliance global director for connected vehicles at Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., said.

“The communication that’s taking place between very, very different industries, knowing and understanding what’s needed from the [original equipment manufacturer] viewpoint, what’s needed from the different suppliers, what’s needed in the infrastructure side — it is quite different,” Schnoes said. “Now it’s really getting ahead of it to say, ‘When we make a transition, how are we ready?’”

Legacy auto companies, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW AG, have showcased self-driving vehicles at CES. Demos of artificial intelligence-powered in-vehicle features like Amazon Alexa embedded in car dashboards have also peppered the show floor.  

As 5G technology stresses connectivity among devices, industries have return on investment to consider before jumping into the autonomous-vehicle game. And Italian telecom operators, which last year collectively bid their government 6.6 billion euros ($7.8 billion) for the opportunity to offer 5G services, are an example of companies that face trouble in seeking their returns, Corinne Vigreux, co-founder of map-making technology company TomTom International BV, noted.

U.S. telecom companies like AT&T Inc., which piloted its 5G network in December 2018, are unlikely to be buying a fleet of autonomous vehicles any time soon, Vrtis said.

“The infrastructure to build and replace 5G is physically expensive,” Vrtis said. “There’s still a lot of dialog that has to happen because that model’s not refined.”

Don’t talk 5G yet; not everyone has 4G connection

Vrtis said she expects her Midwest-based relatives, whom she described as not so technologically savvy, to not be thrilled when 5G becomes the norm. Such attitude encapsulates the problem when the adoption of autonomous vehicles is rushed: Not everyone will have infrastructure to accommodate the stream of new technology, she said.

The U.S. ranks No. 5 for the accessibility of 4G speed, with 90.32 percent availability in the country, according to a February 2018 OpenSignal report.

“We’re a little bit in a bubble,” Vigreux said to a room of investors and industry analysts, who paid $550 to attend the panel and a series of related talks. “If you go outside and talk to people [on] the street, they’re not there yet. They want their cars, they want their freedom, they want to put their foot in the pedal.”

The adoption of 5G technology in public transportation could be more realistic in the near future, as local governments can readily oversee its implementation and enforce safety regulations, Jim Alfred, general manager and vice president of BlackBerry Certicom, said.

“If I wanted to improve the economy, [I’d] invest in transportation,” Alfred said.

Local governments have been eager in testing self-driving technology on their roads. Qualcomm Inc. announced at CES on Jan. 7 its partnership with the city of Las Vegas and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada in installing trial roadside units using its vehicle communication technology, BU News Service reported.

In using multi-device technologies, users inevitably input their personal information, from their looks in face-recognition features to having their location tracked as they navigate. A widespread use of interconnected, 5G-enabled cars would build up concerns on data privacy as tech giants like Google and Facebook Inc. have been mired in data scandals, Alfred said.

But like it or not, the sharing of data among infrastructures would be critical to ensure road safety when 5G becomes a staple in the auto world, Vrtis said.

Despite the challenges, panelists were bullish on the development 5G and autonomous driving technologies.

“When I look at the amount of investment that’s being made by all the people in the ecosystem, I think we’ll see something,” Vigreux said.

Whatever the 5G future will look like, it’s likely to be strong, Schnoes said.

“Fun,” Schnoes said. “But absolutely terrifying at times.”

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