Telefonica trials 5G remote operated cars

The brave new world of remote-controlled cars is now technically possible using wireless technologies set to be commonplace early next decade, two top players from the telecoms industry said at a test drive staged during a major conference in Barcelona on Monday (February 27).

Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica joined forces with Swedish network gear maker Ericsson to showcase how a car could be remotely controlled around obstacles on a test track located 70 kilometers away in Tarragona using wireless networks.

The driver of the vehicle took the wheel from the floor of Fira conference center in Barcelona, on the first day of the Mobile World Congress, Europe’s biggest annual tech fair.

“It’s a closed race track and it’s a real electric vehicle which is controlled from here; the seat, the wheels and the accelerometers and so on, are connected through a 5G trial network that is being deployed by Telefonica between here and the track. This is the first example of a critical application showing how 5G can control machines very far away from where the real user is,” Javier Lorca, head of wireless innovation access network at Telefonica said in an interview with Reuters.

The remote test drive relied on the latest cloud-based mobile networks, capable of the quick response times and high data-rates to make split-second driving decisions from afar.

Ericsson and Telefonica worked in partnership with KTH, Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, and vehicle safety testing company Idiada to organize the demonstration.

Lorca said using state-of-the-art wireless networks to remotely control vehicles at a distance has many possible applications, ranging from electric fleets traversing university campuses and even, eventually for wide-scale public transport.

“There are lots of applications here. We can think of for example campuses where electric vehicles are around for example to carry people, moving good from one place to another or even for metro transportation, like in very closed and predictable circuits where for example the drivers may not have to be seated in the vehicle, but being instead in off-site locations driving the thing. I think this is one of the best experiences of how 5G can change these types of applications,” he added.

Lorca cautioned that, for the near term, such applications would require traveling only within closed-circuit, predictable routes and in situations where it is otherwise impractical for the driver to be seated behind the wheel of the vehicle itself.

The event was intended to highlight the possibilities of 5G, or fifth generation networks, which are expected to begin to become mainstream around the world in the years after 2020.

Nonetheless, in a statement, Telefonica was careful to downplay the need for new wireless investments, saying that current, so-called 4.5G networks could handle most of these demands.

Telefonica has invested 38 billion euros in the last five years to reach millions of homes with it higher-speed fiber broadband network, which it considers a substitute for 5G.