Depending on your perspective, the future of transportation just became either a lot clearer or a little more complicated, as European Union member states yesterday rejected (via Reuters) an effort to mandate Wi-Fi as the standard for future car-to-car communications. Twenty-one EU countries voted against a European Commission plan that would have shut out 5G cellular car links in favor of short-range Wi-Fi, a decision that opens the door to 5G-connected cars in Europe, but won’t preclude Wi-Fi from being used as well.
If you’re a little confused by what that means, you’re not alone. The automotive industry has been split for years on whether to use Wi-Fi or 5G in connected cars, with General Motors, NXP, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo on Wi-Fi’s side, while BMW, Daimler, Ford, Huawei, Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung have backed 5G. Their debate dragged on for long enough that the key argument in favor of Wi-Fi — that it was ready to deploy in 2016, while 5G was not — has been mooted by both international launches of multiple 5G networks and delays in actually releasing connected cars.
Regardless of whether Wi-Fi or 5G is used, the basic concept of vehicle-to-everything communications (also known as V2X) is the same: Cars will be able to transmit data to other cars and local infrastructure (roads, traffic lights, and control systems) to coordinate for safety and eventually full autonomy. All of the communication will happen in real time, conceivably enabling a following car to automatically brake or shift lanes in response to a change in cars or roads ahead, bringing new levels of safety to next-generation vehicles. The question here is which wireless standard vehicles and infrastructure will use to transmit signals.
As Bloomberg notes, European companies have recently become concerned about investing in “soon-to-be outdated” Wi-Fi technology given the ascendance of 5G, which offers superior performance. The specific Wi-Fi standard for vehicles, 802.11p, uses a low-bandwidth 5.9GHz radio channel to transmit data at 3-27Mbps over a distance of 150 meters to 1 kilometer, between vehicles moving at up to 260 kilometers per hour — not just cars, but trains. Due to practical factors, Wi-Fi’s actual transmission distance and data bandwidth are likely to be on the low to middle parts of those ranges.
By comparison, cellular V2X (also known as C-V2X) can use the same 5.9GHz radio channel as 802.11p, but also offers both low-bandwidth and higher-bandwidth data options for transmitting more data while promising superior range, reliability, and latency. Qualcomm says 5G C-V2X will support lossless data transfers between vehicles traveling at up to 500 kilometers per hour, even at distances of over 450 meters, and benefit from numerous 5G towers, which Wi-Fi hasn’t had and won’t have without separate investments. Additionally, while numerous future improvements are already being planned for the 5G C-V2X standard, Qualcomm suggests that 802.11p doesn’t have a path forward from where it is today.
All of those advantages — and plenty of others, including the support of top cellular chip developers — made 5G a clear choice for most French, German, and Italian car makers, as well as Britain’s Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls-Royce and China’s SAIC Motor. In April, European Union lawmakers had previously chosen to back only Wi-Fi, noting that it’s already available to roll out, but EU ministers are now expected to meet next Monday to formally allow both standards to compete.
While that may sound like a position of neutrality on the Wi-Fi/5G debate, it’s actually a de facto win for 5G, which is likely to rapidly gain the infrastructure needed across Europe due to its adoption by numerous cellular carriers. Towers with 5G radios are already going up in multiple EU countries, including Italy, Germany, and Spain, and vehicles with C-V2X will likely follow over the next few years. Commercial 5G vehicle services, such as Waymo autonomous ride-hailing, are already under development.