Time is running out – can 5G curb climate change?

When will self-driving vehicles be a common sight in everyday traffic?

Einride vehicles

Founder and president of Einride

Founder and president of Einride

Speculations are rife and conflicting. On the one hand, a form of self-driving technology – so-called advanced driver-assistance – is already a common feature in modern cars. On the other hand, researchers will tell you problems abound. The human brain is a strange and beautiful thing, and not easily imitated. On the third hand, thanks to machine learning, some of those problems (such as object identification) will be solved by the self-driving cars themselves, without much human interference, in a simulation assisted evolutionary process in hyper speed.

So, when? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years?

My take is a little different. The way I see it, there is a deadline, given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to a recent report from the UN body, global temperatures might rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as early as 2030. Beyond that, even half a degree is likely to be disastrous, significantly worsen the risks of floods, drought, catastrophic forest fires and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

In other words, we have 12 years. That’s it.

What does self-driving have to do with climate change?

Self-driving as an enabler for electrification

Well, Einride’s business is road freight transportation. Here, self-driving technology allows us to remove the driver’s cab from trucks, making them smaller and lighter, in turn allowing for a transition from diesel to electricity, eliminating dangerous NOx emissions, and reducing CO2 emissions by 90 percent.

It makes good commercial sense, too. A personal car is designed to transport at least one human – he or she could just as well take the wheel. The cab of a truck is different, the driver is only there because no one figured out a better way to guide the cargo from A to B. Given the infrastructure and character of the flows, in the developed world, Einride’s solution could replace roughly 60 percent of today’s road freight transport. Together with a shift to renewables, that would make a huge difference for the environment.

5G as an enabler for self-driving

So, what about the self-driving technology? Is it mature enough? The short answer is “yes and no”. The technology has progressed more than most people realize. Einride’s T-pod is autonomous enough to handle most traffic situations, but not all.

For fully autonomous or SAE level five vehicles, we’ll have to wait a while. City streets, for example, are immensely complex environments, where the human capacity for improvisation is difficult to replace. Highways and country roads are easier, fenced areas easier still.

That’s one part of it: aiming for what’s possible now, introducing autonomous vehicles in environments they can handle. The other part of it is remote control.

What if an autonomous vehicle finds itself in a situation it can’t handle? A human operator has to be able to take over and resolve the problem. For the solution to be practical, one operator must be able to supervise several vehicles at the same time. For it to be safe, the shift from autonomous drive to operator must be seamless.

An autonomous vehicle relies on input from several different sensors: lidars, radars, and cameras. We’re talking serious amounts of data, processed every second. For the human-machine interaction to work as it should, all that data must be communicated over long distances – hundreds of miles – continuously and instantly, reliably and without latency.

That’s no trivial matter.

Now, it can be done with a reinforced 4G connection. But the inherent limitations of the technology make this a stopgap, not a long-term, solution.

It’s happening now

5G, on the other hand, provides the high-performance connectivity we need to safely introduce autonomous – and therefore all-electric – trucks much sooner than we would be able to otherwise.

And that is why 5G matters. Not because it will reduce game lag, or let you stream hi-res Netflix series on your phone. But because we’re on a planet-saving mission here. And we have 12 years, not more.

So, when?

In a sense, now. As of some weeks ago, Einride’s T-pod is serving a continuous flow at a DB Schenker facility in Jönköping.

Powered by 5G, the future arrived ahead of schedule.

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