Even in a world accustomed to breathtaking technological disruption, the news that GM will launch a car without a steering wheel or pedals next year comes as a shock. This significantly modified Chevy Bolt shows that the future is fast approaching — a future of driverless cars and autonomous vehicles instead of the human-operated vehicles that we have known for over a century.
What will replace the steering wheel, pedals, and driver controls is, quite simply, communications technology. The vehicle will be communicating constantly — within itself, with other vehicles, with small cell technology that will be deployed ubiquitously, and eventually with the overall infrastructure of our roads including traffic lights, bridges, and street signs (check out this preview). This continuous communication from, to, and within the vehicle will be what keeps it operating safely. Lose it, and the vehicle stops.
Expect to see more of these types of announcements. This kind of communications technology also powers smart cities, telehealth, and other innovations — in essence, recreating the world around us. The much-vaunted internet of things is not just about a refrigerator that might suggest you order milk; it is about living safely, improving our health, and yes, even driving us to work. These innovations will all be empowered by the new 5G wireless networks that are starting to be deployed around the country.
Consider telehealth. The 5G revolution will offer new opportunities in remote diagnostics, wearables that can transmit data constantly to doctors and other healthcare providers, and remote surgery, too. For an illustration of what 5G can do, consider an example from Taiwan: the “Citizen Telecare Service System” helps the elderly through remote monitoring and assistance in managing chronic diseases, including risk assessment and rapid response to health crises. 5G will make this happen more quickly and reliably and with greater functionality.
But all of this — cars, smart cities, new ventures in telehealth, and even the connected refrigerator and coffee maker — will happen only if deployment of 5G technology – including, importantly, the infrastructure for it — proceeds efficiently and rapidly. Progress can occur only as fast as the rate of deployment; in other words, deployment of 5G is the critical path to actual adoption of these innovations. In the Chevy example, the new cars will be electric vehicles, so we can imagine the small cells with which the cars will communicate as a kind of gas station — with information as the “gas” that powers the operation of the vehicle. And just like the gas stations of today, they will be everywhere (albeit considerably smaller), because people will want to go everywhere.
It will take a federal waiver for the nation’s largest auto manufacturer to be able to put its vision into practice in the marketplace and on the streets. Regulations in the area of automotive safety will need to be updated, just as they have in telecom itself to account for a changing world.
The move by GM is vote of confidence in favor of the proposition that the technology will be in place, both in its vehicles and in the surrounding area where the vehicles will operate, for a ride-sharing system somewhere in the United States next year. This is a prime example of American ingenuity and engineering excellence, and it's another example of how high-speed broadband communications technology is increasingly the backbone of the American economy. Now is the time for other stakeholders, including government at all levels, to encourage and promote 5G deployment in order to make this future our shared reality.
Kim Keenan is the new co-chairwoman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).