Roads are already safer for pedestrians thanks to mobile networks – and with 5G will only become more so

Improved road safety is perhaps the greatest prize connected vehicles have to offer. Road traffic accidents remain in the top ten causes of death globally across all age groups, at a cost of 1.35 million lives every year according to the World Health Organization. It is estimated that pedestrians and cyclists, who are among the most vulnerable road users, represent 26% of those who lose their lives due to road traffic accidents. Clearly, this toll on humanity cannot be allowed to continue – and by connecting vehicles to the Internet of Things we can help to bring these shocking numbers down and make our roads safer for users of all kinds.

The US Department of Transport estimates that over 90% of all vehicle collisions are caused by human error – begging the question how such errors can be averted. Where that error is down to a lack of timely information, cellular connectivity has enormous potential to save lives through Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X). C-V2X is a family of four technologies designed to enable short-range as well as wide-area communication between vehicles, roadside infrastructure and people: Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V), Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I), Vehicle-to-Network (V2N) and Vehicle-to-Pedestrian (V2P).

Uses of C-V2X include more efficient driving by alerting drivers to road conditions and providing traffic controllers with real-time updates, thereby reducing congestion and pollution. Most importantly however, these technologies can reduce injury and death by keeping road users informed – and C-V2X is now poised to scale globally, through the ubiquity and security of established 4G networks, and the step change in bandwidth and latency 5G brings.

Of the four technologies in question, V2P has perhaps the most direct application as a tool for safety, enabling as it does communication between vehicles and vulnerable road users (VRUs) such as pedestrians and cyclists. Collision avoidance can be achieved, for instance, when an oncoming driver is unaware of a pedestrian crossing or a cyclist around the next corner, and so does not think to slow down in time. Such everyday scenarios can be made far safer by using cellular networks to make VRUs visible to the driver, using an application on the VRU’s smartphone, or by direct communication that sidesteps the network, using C-V2X technology that is embedded directly into the VRU’s mobile device. Thankfully, the mobile industry and its partners in the automotive sector are showing a clear trend towards implementation of these crucial safety features. Earlier this year, for example, BMW and Qualcomm demonstrated a smartphone application which ensures autonomous vehicles detect pedestrians ahead and alert them, as well as the passenger inside, as they come closer. Around the same time, Samsung subsidiary Harman unveiled its V2P system which uses 5G’s ultra-low latency to identify safety conflicts through proximity scanning where even advanced cameras cannot, such as through parked vehicles.

Harman President Dr Mike Peters predicts that with the maturation of 5G technologies and networks, additional opportunities for vehicles to communicate with more of their surroundings will open up. “Creating technologies that help prevent the injury of drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists is absolutely paramount,” Dr Peters observes; “by introducing 5G technology to the car in a way that is both meaningful and practical, Vehicle-to-Pedestrian is an exciting innovation that will make our roads safer.”

Among more established partnerships, Telefónica and Seat demonstrated their solution to allow VRUs and road infrastructure in Spanish cities to communicate with nearby vehicles at MWC Barcelona 2019. Vodafone and technology developer Continental have also been collaborating on a ‘Digital Shield’, whereby cameras built into the vehicle and artificial intelligence on the network side (mobile edge computing), recognise the intentions of pedestrians and cyclists and flag potential accidents before they can happen.

Mobile operators have a truly life-saving role to play in bringing vehicles online as the Internet of Things grows; unlike alternative solutions such as DSRC/802.11p, mobile networks enable communication beyond line of sight, which can easily make the difference in whether an accident takes place. Extending the range of communication beyond the driver’s immediate surroundings means that road conditions, potential hazards and collision risks can be detected earlier, and the safety and efficiency of roads can be markedly improved. As the economics of deployment become increasingly clear with the maturation of 5G, we can expect more and more operators and their partners to roll out V2P, and very much look forward to supporting them in doing so.

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