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Will Wi-Fi complement 5G in connected vehicles?

Recently, European Union member states voted against an effort to legislate the use of Wi-Fi in connected cars, clearing the way for 4G/LTE and, ultimately, 5G. EU Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc, had pushed for Wi-Fi as the standard because the technology is already available, and so could help to significantly reduce the 25,000 deaths a year on European roads.

However, the issue has provoked fierce debate across the automotive and telecom industries, and among politicians. Wi-Fi (specifically 802.11p) was the preferred option of car companies such as Volkswagen and Renault, as well as other technology and intelligent transport companies.

Conversely, Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ford and Groupe PSA), technology companies such as Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Qualcomm and Samsung, as well as operators such as Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom, were strongly opposed the act.

Opponents argue that a technology-agnostic approach would enable the evolution to 5G when the time is right and, in the meantime, allow the use of 4G/LTE for connected vehicles. 5G is the next step towards vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication, which allows cars to send information to nearby vehicles and infrastructure, such as traffic lights and smart motorways, and allows autonomous cars to detect sudden braking or turning from surrounding vehicles and to respond automatically.

Wi-Fi coverage, in contrast, could be patchy, creating a series of islands. If adopted, Europe would risk falling further behind the rest of the world, notably the US and China, in the deployment of connected vehicles and the economic, environmental and safety benefits they offer.

5G has other advantages for connected cars, including better range, reliability, latency – and, crucially, it is optimised for mobility. One the other hand, Wi-Fi does have some merits. It could transmit data between vehicles (including trains) moving up to 260 km/h, with a range around 150 metres, while 5G can communicate between vehicles moving up to 500 km/h, at a range of over 450 meters. In urban environments, it may well have a role to play.

Indeed, it’s impossible to believe that Wi-Fi cannot provide complementary connectivity to 5G. Indeed, there are numerous use cases in which Wi-Fi could still provide the perfect solution. For example, inside cars and lorries, it can provide the local network required for some sensors and, for in-car infotainment, such as streaming video. Given that autonomous vehicles will essentially drive themselves, car manufacturers are placing big bets on infotainment as a strategic differentiator to entertain both driver and passengers during long journeys.

Connected vehicles certainly need to be connected via a mobile macro network to provide continuous connectivity, in order to ensure the safety and economic benefits that would offer. However, to suggest that Wi-Fi has no role to play as a complementary technology is, at best, short-sighted – but there is a false debate here. It’s not a zero-sum game. Wi-Fi may not be ideal for all applications in personal transport, but it does have a role. This isn’t about finding a winner; it’s about using the right tools for the right jobs. Those who advocate one technology over another should ensure that they do so for practical not dogmatic reasons.