President and CEO of Clearfield, providing optical-fiber management and connectivity solutions across North America.
The time needed to develop what we need for a fully autonomous transportation system might seem lightyears away, but that future may be closer than you think. Automakers at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show were touting the idea of making self-driving cars affordable for the middle-class by the middle of the decade. Some project that by 2050, autonomous vehicles will meet global transportation needs with under one accident per year.
As broadband spreads across more of America, it enables innovative approaches to transportation, like autonomous vehicles, which offer incredible benefits to society—fewer accidents, reduced service costs and lower emissions, all at greater speed and efficiency. But the promise of truly autonomous transportation requires federal and state regulations to evolve. The sheer volume of data that these networks will generate, process, transmit and receive will be massive. One thing is certain: We need broadband to take us there.
The Birth Of The Transportation Ethernet
Cars today come equipped with touchscreens, navigation and connected smartphone technology. Still, future vehicles could update their software and communicate with other cars and road signs with vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology. V2X includes the wireless exchange of information between vehicles (V2V) within a defined range and other infrastructure (V2I) and devices on or near the roadway. V2X can deliver real-time traffic information using onboard communications tools, react to anticipated changes in road conditions and recognize and respond to road signs and warnings, improving road safety and preventing collisions.
With government and industry driving broadband development, one day, we could see more 5G towers along the roadway and an ultra-low latency fiber optic network infrastructure. This is the exact environment where autonomous vehicles would thrive. The ultra-low latency fiber optic network supports the 5G signals riding over the top needed to carry V2X traffic and allows vehicles to communicate with the cloud and their surroundings. As more applications develop in response to this broadening network, we can expect to see vehicle communication with pedestrians (V2P) and an entire automotive network connecting vehicles to the network (V2N), where user interactions can inspire a whole new world of innovation. As high-speed broadband extends to everyone everywhere, that technology will start to be applied in ways we have yet to dream of.
Automation Is Good For The Environment
Already, broadband has enabled smart home devices, allowing homeowners to reduce energy consumption and help the environment. Between smart thermostats, heat pumps, electric water heaters and other connected appliances, widespread deployment of home broadband access across the country stands to reduce U.S. energy demands by up to 30%. If we build out a fully connected, ultra-low latency fiber infrastructure that can support that kind of communication between vehicles and infrastructure, then electric vehicles (EVs), autonomous vehicles, smart grid power utilities, fiber infrastructure and advanced wireless networks like 5G and 6G will drastically reduce the need to burn fossil fuels.
Electric vehicles are a great start for reducing carbon emissions, but automation and the broadband network to support it can transform the transportation industry’s reputation as a major polluter. In the trucking industry, trucks take a beating making long, cross-country drives, but an automated transportation network would shave hours off of travel time. Some fleets estimate they can save another 400,000 miles a year in reduced hours spent servicing their vehicles. Less time on the road is less time generating carbon emissions. Self-driving cars can also reduce or improve traffic jams with enough efficiency to reduce gas usage by 42%. Fewer vehicles on the road burning less gas over less time can start to clean up the carbon footprint of the transportation industry.
Government Action Required
The government is willing to invest in broadband. Several states have used funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 to improve their broadband infrastructure. The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes another $7 billion in broadband development, including programs to make broadband more affordable in underserved areas and build networks in rural and tribal lands. Add in an infrastructure bill committing $100 billion to deploy broadband access, which is about to take effect, and some might start thinking everything is set to fall into place on its own. But it’s not.
The government needs to pay attention to this movement and take continuous action to drive broadband availability. States and federal bodies need to collaborate with other insurance companies and law enforcement to establish construction and performance standards, creating a regulatory environment that allows for the adoption of a safe autonomous transportation system. Governments should act now to develop clear regulations for autonomous vehicles to get ahead in streamlining regulation and providing the stability and predictability the industry needs to grow.
Before revolution comes improvements in communication. Improved modes of connecting lead to higher-performing devices, prompting new applications that change the world. Some 20 years ago, automated transportation would have seemed impossible. The typical speed of a broadband connection to the home was less than one megabit per second. Today’s to-the-home speeds are in gigabits per second—an exponential increase in network bandwidth that enabled higher-performance consumer devices, which allowed for new applications that changed society—and will become terabit-per-second capacity tomorrow. As we build fiber infrastructure and 5G antennas along the roadways, the same will happen with the transportation industry, enabling new devices that will lead to new applications, which will revolutionize the way we move in the world.