How 5G could change transportation

5G symbol at the end of the road
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Could 5G be the light at the end of the tunnel for autonomous vehicles?

This article was adapted from GreenBiz's Transport Weekly newsletter, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here

The race to deploy 5G is underway in the U.S., and even Donald Trump has an opinion about it (even if it was the equivalent of The Onion's five-blade razor joke). So what's the big deal? 5G's wireless broadband networks promise blazing fast speeds that will enable you to do things such as stream HD movies on your phone. 

But transportation — vehicles, roads, city infrastructure — also could be greatly shaped by the upgraded cellular networks. Why? A big reason is the arrival of autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars will need to react to their surroundings as fast as possible. These vehicles eventually will use wireless networks that connect with each other, connect to road infrastructure and connect back into the cloud, to create systems that can drive more safely than humans could.

While today's autonomous vehicles use mostly onboard processing to react to the environment, in the future, cloud computing (over wireless networks) will play a much larger role. Tomorrow's autonomous vehicles could talk to each other and platoon to reduce traffic. And all that data that self-driving cars are collecting could be uploaded and used for other services such as city planning or local weather monitoring.

"For autonomous cars, you need them to be as safe as possible. So if you could go from 26 milliseconds with 4G LTE to 10 milliseconds with 5G, then you're reducing the time the car has to react," Louis Stewart, Sacramento's chief innovation officer, told me recently in an interview. 

Sacramento is one of the first cities in the United States to get 5G, and it has been working with Verizon on a roll-out for almost two years. It's only available in certain neighborhoods at homes for now, but will be rolled out more widely down the road. 

Stewart wants to use the 5G network as a way to attract startups and entrepreneurs to the city to build and test 5G-connected hardware. Think of it as a "living laboratory" for 5G tech, says Stewart. For example, the city is working with autonomous vehicle startup Phantom Auto, which uses the cellular network to remotely take control of a vehicle as a backup driver. 5G would make that job a lot easier. 

For Sacramento, the 5G play is about development and bringing more tech jobs to the region. Access to shared, electric autonomous vehicles also eventually could help provide transportation options for underserved communities. 

But of course, it's all a big experiment. Because Sacramento was the first city to sign onto a 5G network with Verizon, the telco has been working out the kinks in California's capital, with critics saying the rollout is happening too slowly. Stewart says the biggest lesson learned: "manage expectations."

Stewart is one of my advisers on VERGE Transport, the transportation focus at our annual VERGE conference (Oct. 22 to 24). We'll be highlighting how cities can use technology to develop sustainable transportation systems (among other topics).

My other fabulous advisers include Proterra's Ryan Popple, EVgo's Cathy Zoi, CEC Commissioner Janea Scott, Oakland Department of Transportation's Ryan Russo, UPS's Patrick Browne, Lime's Andrew Savage, Ryder's Julie Johnson, Veloz's Josh Boone and WSP's Sahar Shirazi. It's going to be a fun event this year!