The new data sharing network that defines so many technical applications would be almost impossible without 5G. Because it transmits data more efficiently, 5G has the potential to be 40 times faster and suffer shorter lag times than the current 4G standard. That speed is critical for autonomous cars, where timely decisions need to be made to avoid crashes. In this article, learn how 5G will impact automotive and a host of new technical applications.




In northern Lapland, snow stays on the ground from October to May. Travel conditions can be bad-even when the roads are plowed, they can be so icy that some people prefer reindeer to get around.

In such an environment, knowing what the driving conditions are for the next mile of road can be critically important. And who or what knows those conditions better than the car driving on that road right now?

Researchers from the VTT Technical Research Institute in Espoo, Finland, are experimenting with ways to relay real-time sensor information from car-to-car. In the coming months, they will be running two cars-one manned and another autonomous-on an icy track to see how the vehicles can share data on road conditions via a new, advanced cellular data transmission system called 5G. The goal is to use 5G’s blazing speed and low-latency features to get critical data from every car on the road to every other vehicle, all in order to reduce the chances of collision, improve road safety, and save lives.

Although the 5G cellular standard is relatively new, all major car makers plan to implement the technology in connected cars in the coming years. VTT's major challenge is supplementing 5G cell phone infrastructure with safety services, especially for winter driving.


Martti, a self-driving car, runs on a snow-and-ice-covered test track in nothern Finland.

Photo: VTT

“We can have services providing warnings if there is a collision, obstacles, or slippery road conditions ahead. Then automated vehicles can plan its actions,” said Tiia Ojanperä, senior scientist and project manager at VTT. “Those are the kind of services we are piloting in the project.”

This data sharing network would be almost impossible without the use of 5G. Because it transmits data more efficiently, 5G has the potential to be 40 times faster and suffer shorter lag times than the current 4G standard. That speed is critical for autonomous cars, where timely decisions need to be made to avoid crashes.

5G will also be able to transmit video instantly over long distances, allowing one vehicle to share live images with many others.

“5G will bring more transmission capacity and bandwidth,” Ojanperä said, “so we are looking at a see-through application where vehicles traveling in a queue can get a view of the front of the pick-up truck and adjust their actions accordingly in terms of takeover.”

It isn’t just automotive applications where the new wireless communication standard will open up possibilities in the coming decade. Just about any system where data needs to be shared between distributed sensors and a central computer will get a boost from the new standard. Engineers are already thinking about how a web of 5G radios and receivers can replace data cables, or how to use 5G-enabled sensors to bring the Internet of Things (IoT) to its fullest fruition.

Full Impact

The term “5G” is just a shorthand for the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications technology, dating from an analogue system first deployed in 1979. With the first 3G network introduced in 1998 and 4G networks in 2008, a new set of mobile network technologies is overdue.

Initial benchmarks indicate 5G being 20 times faster than 4G, but that could scale to 40 times or higher, said Rob Topol, general manager of 5G Advanced Technologies at Intel, which is providing 5G circuitry and infrastructure equipment. The blazing speed is achieved by exploiting wireless spectrum above 30 GHz, also called millimeter wave, which was previously not available for cellular communications. The higher operating frequency enables more information to be carried per second of transmission time.

A key 5G reliability feature, called “network slicing,” guarantees reception so connections don’t break down. Slicing can guarantee a wireless connection to an autonomous car driving through an area with network congestion, Topol said.

Compared to 4G, 5G handles smaller packets of data efficiently for machine-to-machine communication with realtime exchange of data between devices and sensors. For instance, VTT researchers estimated 5G time lag at 1 millisecond, compared to 10 to 20 milliseconds for 4G.

Though the standard was adopted only in December 2017 and may take years to fully implement, 5G is already at our doorstep. A fast and high-bandwidth radio called 5G-NR for mobile devices and computers is in the process of being tested. 5G smartphones will be available later this year, and wireless providers will be ready. Verizon Wireless has already announced a 5G home internet service about 50 times faster than the average wired home connection.

The true impact of 5G won’t be felt until engineers start finding new applications for the technology, especially in autonomous vehicles—considered a rich field for development thanks to the massive data flow generated by cameras and sensors—and the billions of IoT-enabled devices expected to be marketed in the next decade.

“The first five years of an air interface are typically evolutionary from the commercial models you have today,” Topol said. “But the second wave of applications are those that are unknown today. We are trying to accelerate that with field trials.”

For instance, when Intel sat down with other companies to conceptualize 5G, they said they didn’t want just a faster 4G or another dumb medium for point-to-point data communication. Instead, those companies wanted to use the new technology to support distributed processing that could solve problems or deliver answers without having to rely on either a centralized or cloud-based machine.

Topol’s team at Intel is figuring out how to realize that distributed intelligence, beginning with unmanned aerial vehicles. In experiments, UAVs will use 5G to simultaneously talk to other airborne drones, cloud-based computers, and other 5G access points that possess machine intelligence. Combined resources on the network will help determine and coordinate drone flight traffic and management.

“Think of 5G as a much better way to transport intelligence and deciding how much computation you need close to where the task is happening,” Topol said. “It’s not about the smartphone anymore, it’s about how do I bring intelligence to cars, industrial frameworks, and healthcare.”

High-Bandwidth Capabilities

Researchers at VTT are running cars in hazardous conditions in the Lapland town of Sodankylä, where 11 feet of snow falls in a typical year, to show how 5G can broadcast information to improve autonomous and semi-autonomous car navigation. Sensors in a manually driven car and fixed weather stations alongside a test track will collect information on ice build-up, which can reduce friction on the road surface. The readings will be sent over a 5G network to the Finnish Meteorological Institute, which works with VTT to analyze the data. If the road is determined to be slippery, an alert will be sent to a 5G-equipped Martti self-driving car that’s also running on the track.

“We can pull sensor data, transfer it to a back-end server in the 5G test network and send out the warnings, and test the maneuvers and actions in the Martti when it receives the warnings,” VTT’s Ojanperä said. “It can go around an obstacle or choose another route if slippery road conditions are detected in one stretch of road.”

5G Buildout

Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon are upgrading cell towers with new radio heads, base stations, and diverse access points to support additional 5G frequencies. As the 5G buildout continues, it could take years for networks to fully mature.

Base stations in and outside cell towers are being loaded with faster electronics and algorithms to handle AI, network management, and other edge tasks, that eases the network load and provides intelligent services as data moves from one point to another along the network.

Unlike the lower frequencies used for 4G and Wi-Fi, signals on the 5G millimeter-wave spectrum above 30 GHz have trouble penetrating obstructions. That's where additional technologies like beamforming step in, creating a sort of last-mile reach to retain the resilience of signal beams. There will be shorter connections through repeaters, which are smaller and simpler access points that operate like a distributed relay providing deeper coverage needed inside factories.

Small 5G boxes could be embedded into the existing infrastructure, such as street lamps, utility poles, or bus shelters, much the way Wi-Fi access points are mounted into buildings and other places, said Rob Topol, general manager of 5G Advanced Technologies at Intel. For signals to reliably reach devices, 5G will have a quicker handoff with other widely deployed wireless networks such as 4G, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.


Verizon technicians install a 5G node.

Photo: Verizon

The trial is based on low-bandwidth 5G IoT communications, but cars could exploit high-bandwidth capabilities. For instance, onboard cameras could send images to cloud services to determine hazardous road conditions, and that video could be shared in case of accident, Ojanperä said. “5G will allow transmission of more extensive data, including video and phone call to emergency centers.”

Other experiments have shown the potential of 5G in connected cars. A June 2018 experiment in Detroit by the 5G Automotive Association showed how cars could get information on traffic congestion and other road conditions beyond the immediate view of the vehicle.

5G may also enable manufacturers to deliver faster over-the-air software updates to vehicles and allow quicker diagnosis of performance issues. While seamless fixes to minor problems might seem like a boon, even automotive researchers admit it could raise questions of who really owns the car.

“What happens if your car will be behaving differently compared to how you originally planned to use it? It’s a bit of a safety risk,” Ojan-perä said.

Machine Tool

Though 5G is a cellular communications standard, it will have profound effects on the factory floor. “5G is an enabler for Industry 4.0,” explained Sascha Gierlings, head of prototype manufacturing at Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technologies in Aachen, Germany.

Fraunhofer IPT has been testing 5G communication in prototype machines used to make airline parts at its testbed facility in Aachen. The institute has found 5G’s low latency provides a live view of a machine’s performance as well as instant feedback on every step in the high-speed milling of parts, which helps diagnose machine problems and fix quality issues quickly.

That’s especially important in the aircraft industry, which must meet strict quality and compliance requirements.

“Even a couple of years ago, manufacturing was a black box. You typically get to know about the quality of parts when it was measured, and that is after you have manufactured the part,” Gierlings said. “Now we can make quality issues of the part visible during manufacturing. For these kinds of parts, the vibration and the dimension accuracy are the most important quality parameters.”

In one test, a Mikron MILL P 500 U from GF Machining Solutions was used to make blade-integrated disks, a component in a jet engine’s compressor. A wireless acceleration sensor measured the vibration, and a 5G network transmitted that information out instantly, at a much faster rate than possible with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The thin rotor blades are complex parts, and vibration in the tool can create surface defects.


In one test, a milling machine like this was augmented with 5G-capable sensors.

Photo: GF Machining

The 5G network was able to provide live information on spindle velocity, the tool acceleration, and machine’s deviations. It also provided details for product documentation. The deep machine insight via 5G could nail down exact spots where defects lurk.

“For the first time we were in a position to get the information at a resolution that puts us in a position to react to this instantly,” Gierlings said.

Aircraft builders, automakers, and other manufacturers concerned about hacks into wireless networks may wind up retaining some hardwired connections. But the wireless connection between sensors and control systems can be so robust that 5G might replace wires in other applications.

“The first requirement is that the application may not work with cables. That is the case with five-axis milling— there is quite dynamic movement of the machine table. You have the milling tool, you have cooling lubricants everywhere, and it’s hot,” said Niels König, chief engineer at Fraunhofer IPT.

With more sensors being packed and interconnected, König said, machine designs will have to change.

“The processes and part designs are much more demanding and will be more demanding in the future,” König said. “The machine accuracy will stay the same—because you can’t have nanometer accuracy—but you need this kind of knowledge to get closer to the physical limits.”

Faster Feedback

Another application that can take advantage of the high bandwidth and low latency of 5G communications is robotics.

A hint of what might be in store came at the 2017 Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. When a human equipped with gloves and a VR headset moved his hands and legs, a robot nearby replicated it instantly. The imitation game was made possible by 5G: Data collected from sensors in the VR headset and glove was transmitted immediately to the robot.


Frank Fitzek puts a 5G-enabled, tele-operated robot through its paces.

Photo: Deutsche Telekom

The robot was the brainchild of Frank Fitzek, a professor and Deutsche Telekom chair of communication networks group at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany. Fitzek is working with the German company Wandelbots to create collaborative robots capable of interacting with humans over long distances. Implementing 5G is a key part of their strategy.

“We could even implement augmented reality that the human can interact with, and the machine will also learn from that,” Fitzek said. That would involve simulating a realistic training environment in a VR headset and sending feedback to the robot in a real-world setting.

5G could also facilitate instant communication between robots, which is key in automation. “Currently you see robots in cages and they don’t interact with each other. For Industry 4.0, you will need to let the robots cooperate,” Fitzek said.

Engineers don’t need specific skills to implement 5G in robots, which are commodities that are becoming cheaper and cheaper. A robot’s essence is in the software and the way they cooperate with other machines and humans.

“That doesn’t come from the robotic parts, it comes from the sensory parts,” Fitzek said. “We have to work on the sensors.”

For instance, a sensory-laden jacket worn by a human trainer could send a data stream via 5G networks to a robot, which could follow the human’s movements in real time.

“The human will teach the robot what to do,” Fitzek said. “The teaching takes five minutes.”

Over time, industry experts say, the proliferation of sensors brought on by both IoT and 5G networks could cause design headaches of their own. Engineers will need to model behaviors to anticipate integration issues and reduce development and testing effort, said Ken Karnofsky, senior strategist for signal processing applications at MathWorks.

The coupling of digital, RF, and antenna components is a consideration in 5G, and mechanical aspects such as placement of antennas and related arrays, as well as product materials and form factors, can impact 5G system performance, Karnofsky said. Applications like 5G Toolbox from Math-Works help engineers simulate and design 5G compliant models and show the impact on overall system performance.

5G’s potential is yet to be fully realized, but one thing is certain: It makes IoT devices and sensors in robots, machines, cars, and drones matter unlike any other past technology.

“We think of 5G as a communication platform because for the first time we can combine communication and control theory. When you have a control loop you need feedback to control your system,” Fitzek said.