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Faster, safer and more efficient: How 5G will change tomorrow's cars

The high-speed wireless technology isn't just for your phone -- it promises to change tomorrow's vehicles and roads for the better.

Toyota

Most of the hype about 5G wireless networks centers on faster data speeds for phones and laptops. But there's a whole range of internet-connected things out there that stand to also benefit from this faster, more robust connection of the future, perhaps none more so than tomorrow's cars. 

While the major US carriers will activate their 5G wireless networks in 2019, widespread automotive adoption is probably a few years away. But when 5G does hit the road, the benefits in cars will be similar to those for smartphones: bringing data into the car for passenger and driver consumption; and sending more data out at a faster rate. 

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Bringing the web on the road

More and more of today's modern cars boast some sort of local area Wi-Fi hotspot feature that allows passengers' mobile devices to share an onboard 4G LTE connection. LTE can be pretty fast, but it also can get bogged down when everyone in the car or nearby is using smartphones and tablets to stream music, video and data. That's where 5G comes in: Its manyfold increase in bandwidth and speed means that every seat in a seven-passenger SUV could stream a different HD (or 4K) Netflix show without breaking a sweat. OK, so the kids won't be watching the scenery on a car trip. But as they're glued to a screen, hopefully they won't ask, "How much longer?"

Byton M-byte interior

The K-Byte and M-Byte's cabins are dominated by a massive display that's connected to the web via 5G.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

If you're a driver too busy keeping your eyes on the road, you can still see the benefits of 5G in the car. Automakers will be able to take advantage of that bandwidth to bring rich media and more information into the dashboard. For example, the Byton K-Byte concept's massive dashboard display is betting heavily on 5G to power its connected media, health monitoring and social tech. As more of the web seeps into the cockpit, automakers will follow.

Connecting the car to the web

A 5G connection works both ways, and there will be benefits to both the driver and the automaker from being able to draw more data out of the car, including better remote monitoring and faster remote control of autonomous cars.

If you've ever used a phone or smartwatch to remotely unlock your car, you'll know that the time between tapping the app and getting a response on the car can be anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes on 4G. There's a similar delay when, for example, you remotely request battery status on a plug-in hybrid. The reason for the lag is that both tasks require a lot of information to be sent over a wireless connection. But 5G will be a low-latency technology, meaning that it can process more information with little delay. The result is that in addition to a minor increase in convenience, 5G could mean that your phone replaces your key fob completely, allowing web-authenticated locking and unlocking that's less fiddly than NFC and more secure.

This will almost certainly become the case as alternative ownership models -- including car-sharing services, vehicle subscription services and corporate vehicle fleets -- begin to grow and cloud-based driver profiles allow drivers to move seamlessly from car to car. One day, you could park your Audi at LAX, land in New York and hop into another Audi, unlocking it with an app over 5G while instantly downloading your seating position, contacts and favorite playlists.

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With today's laggy connections, unlocking your car with a phone or smartwatch from this close would be ridiculous. 5G's low-latency connection could be instantaneous, making it possible to replace your keys with a smart device.

Hyundai

Every electric car is a connected car

More and more, the cars of the future will move toward electrification -- whether it's full-battery electrics or plug-in hybrids -- and almost every electrified car needs to be connected to the web in some way. There are just too many benefits for them not to be: from remotely monitoring battery levels and charging status to searching for charging stations and smart route planning. 5G promises to streamline today's sometimes clunky connections.

The same low-latency benefits mentioned above apply here. A 5G connection between the car, the web and your mobile device could allow more granular monitoring of battery level when, for example, you're plugged into a public charging station. Instantaneous updates could help you catch that annoying neighbor who keeps unplugging your EV in the act.

2018 Nissan Leaf

I usually use a smartphone app to search for electric car-charging stations, but more robust 5G data in the dashboard could make it easier to find charging stations with your EV's infotainment.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

While on the road, a faster connection to infrastructure and traffic monitoring can help smart EVs plan efficient routes that maximize range. Meanwhile, more robust connections to charging networks could mean an end to arriving to a charging station only to find it occupied.

The road to autonomy

In the short term, autonomous vehicles will have to share the road with human drivers. So onboard processing will be more important to self-driving cars than cloud computing. They'll have to be able to react to unpredictable driving conditions, even in areas where connectivity isn't so great. However, that doesn't mean that there won't be any short-term benefits to 5G-connected self-driving cars.

Udelv, for example, is testing self-driving delivery vehicles in California. Per state law, a human "safety driver" is required during testing phase to aid in tricky situations like construction zones. Eventually, the startup hopes to use low-latency networks and remote safety drivers that can command the trucks from a central data center.

A 5G connection would, in theory, allow a few humans to monitor a fleet of autonomous trucks with the zero input lag that's necessary for safe remote control. No doubt autonomous tech companies like Waymo and Uber, automakers and other self-driving startups are eyeing 5G for this very reason.

Autonomous car startups like Udelv hope to use the low-latency connectivity like 5G to enable remote safety drivers to monitor and control their electric delivery trucks during the testing phase.

Udelv

The truly self-driving car and beyond

Looking further down the road to a day when truly self-driving cars are more widespread, 5G connectivity will begin to play a much larger role.

Autonomous cars that can communicate with each other (V2V) and the infrastructure (V2X) have the potential to pull off all sorts of neat tricks. Platooning, for example, allows self-driving car or trucks to move together in formation, reducing aerodynamic losses on the highway and drastically reducing traffic inefficiency in urban areas.

The next time you're at a traffic light, watch how the cars start moving one after another when the light turns green and how much time is wasted waiting for (often distracted) drivers to react. Now imagine every car in a column taking off simultaneously the instant the light changes. This would only be possible with a no-lag connection between the cars and the traffic light, the sort of connection promised by 5G.

Meanwhile, every one of those autonomous cars will be packed to the gills with sensors -- cameras, radar, lidar and more -- collecting petabytes of data every day. Collecting even a fraction of that data is invaluable to improving everything from city planning to just making self-driving cars smarter through distributed computing, but doing so will require a beefy data connection.

From here to the future

From more efficient and entertaining commuting to smarter self-driving cars, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are the trucking industry, fleet management, logistics companies and mega retailers, all busy brainstorming ways that big data -- perhaps backed by robust 5G wireless connectivity or whatever lies beyond -- can change the way we move people and goods around the world and into the future.

Check out the rest of CNET's coverage of 5G technology to learn more about the next big upgrade in wireless connectivity.