These 5G Highways Might Save You on Your Cross-Europe Holiday

These 5G Highways Might Save You on Your Cross-Europe Holiday

By Tom Cassauwers



These corridors will ensure that connected cars of the future don't crash into each other while crossing borders.

By Tom Cassauwers

  • Europe will spend $47 million on four pilot projects by 2022 to test 5G-enabled highways at borders.
  • The aim: to ensure that signals critical for autonomous vehicles don’t drop while crossing borders. It could reshape road travel globally.

Imagine you’re driving in the future, when connected cars — which can communicate with systems outside the vehicle — are common. You’re cruising along the highway, aided by your autopilot, common in most cars. The car in front of you suddenly brakes. Usually, that would automatically send a message across a wireless network that would reach you in milliseconds, leading to an automatic braking maneuver. But that didn’t happen today because you were crossing a border, and the signal was disrupted. You crash.

Borders — when they aren’t closed because of a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic — are a problem for connectivity. When you cross them, telecom operators or carriers need to hand over your connection, and you might lose phone signal for several minutes. Today, that’s an inconvenience. As connected cars become increasingly ubiquitous, it might be a deadly hazard — one that the European Union is preparing to fight.

By 2025, they don’t only want to connect major European cities with high-speed 5G connections, they also want to build highways with seamless 5G infrastructure that doesn’t stutter when vehicles are crossing a border. The high speeds and low latency of next-generation 5G networks make them ideal for critical connected car applications like automatic braking.

Road safety can be a lot better if we have 5G that is seamless across borders.

Jesus Alonso-Zarate, researcher, CTTC

Over the next three years, the EU will spend $47 million on four pilot projects: at Brenner Pass in the Alps between Italy and Austria, in Luxembourg, at the Spain-Portugal border and at the Greece-Turkey border. With the number of connected cars globally set to explode from 16 million in 2018 to 84 million by 2025, these highways could prove critical for Europe if driving across borders is to remain straightforward — the coronavirus notwithstanding.  

Austria. Brenner Autobahn, bridge near village of Gries; the Brenner Freeway is the most important throughway over the central Alps and connects the Austrian region of Tyrol with the Italian region of Southern Tyrol. The Brenner Freeway has a toll-charge.

Brenner Pass in the Alps is one of the four pilot projects that will test 5G highways.

Source Getty

“The vision of Europe is to get rid of borders and make sure mobility across the continent can flow without any limitation,” says Jesus Alonso-Zarate, a senior researcher at CTTC, a telecommunications research institute in Spain, who is involved with the Luxembourg pilot project. “Road safety can be a lot better if we have 5G that is seamless across borders.”

There’s an economic impact too, even as the broader debate over the merits and demerits of self-driving cars continues. The WHO estimates that countries usually lose 1 to 2 percent of their GDP because of road collisions.

“Right now the automotive industry is scaling back expectations around autonomy, and focusing more on how to support drivers and make driving safer,” says Ben Rutten, program manager of the Technical University of Eindhoven’s smart mobility program.

In the Luxembourg project, for instance, Alonso-Zarate and his colleagues will test real-time, high-definition maps of vehicle surroundings and collision avoidance systems at the 5G corridors.

A glimpse of what they would look like can already be found in Belgium, on a highway near Antwerp. Here IMEC, a Belgian research institute participating in two of the four projects, has installed its own testbed for connected cars. “We test applications like automatic braking in case of emergency, or being able to look around the corner using roadside sensors,” says Bart Lannoo, a researcher at IMEC.

The IMEC team drives cars below a signaling bridge across the highway to see how they communicate with telecom gear and antennas. They’ll be installing something similar on the border between Greece and Turkey. “You simply cannot lose your signal here, so we are working hard on ways to maintain connections across borders,” says Lannoo.

But even though the EU is investing heavily in 5G, it’s far from certain that this network will be the dominant force behind connected cars. The European Parliament is still debating whether to use a WiFi-based standard or 5G for certain connected car operations. It’s a debate that has split key industry stakeholders — General Motors, NXP, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo have backed WiFi, while BMW, Daimler, Ford, Huawei, Intel, Qualcomm and Samsung support 5G. The coronavirus pandemic is also expected to delay the rollout of 5G across Europe. “It’s still unclear whether 5G will be the only technology to support connected cars,” says Rutten.

Investment decisions add complexity. Telecom operators will need a business model that can pay for new antennas and towers along highways, beyond just selling SIM-cards and data plans. “Quite a number of stakeholders, from the EU to the operators, are still searching [for] who is willing to invest in those networks, and how they will earn that back,” says Rutten.

Nevertheless, 5G will most likely be key to connected cars. The debate at the European level is only focused on shorter range communications between vehicles, not longer range ones (for which networks like 4G and particularly 5G will be the default). And unlike WiFi, 5G is scalable across a cellular network.

Nowhere will that be more critical than at the borders. Europe’s efforts could be a pointer to the global future of international road transport.