I’m not going to lie: Remotely driving a vehicle from 60-miles away is pretty cool. It’s the sort of stuff that makes you wonder what’s waiting in the not-very-distant future.
I got to do this because Ericsson let me take its 5G-controlled vehicle-of-sorts (it wasn’t a car) for a spin at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The 141-year-old company was adamant about demonstrating that reducing latency — more on that in a second — is critical to this 5G-fueled-autonomous-car-thing I keep hearing about here.
Skeptical, I agreed and was soon placed in an arcade-like car seat with my only instructions, “It’s like a car — Just drive.”
The vehicle I was controlling was about an hour southwest of Barcelona in the port city of Tarragona, and from what I could see from the four 4K televisions in front of me, it looked like the vehicle was in the middle of nowhere.
A bunch of orange cones outlined the course and off in the distance, in the middle of the track, were two people wearing all white clothing that I couldn’t make out. I didn’t ask who they were or what they were doing, but assumed they were there should anything go wrong with the vehicle.
I also assumed they had to pick up any orange cones that were knocked over by reckless drivers. Sadly, I’m very childish, and I intentionally hit many orange cones so I could watch two people 60 miles away pick them up.
Still, I did take most of the experience seriously and I was impressed — the vehicle accurately responded to each and every turn I made. And what I saw on the monitors felt true to where my brain thought I was.
Generally speaking, latency is how long it takes for two devices to communicate to each other. Major carriers usually talk about bandwidth — i.e. download speeds of 100mbps — but often leave out the other half of the internet-speed equation, which is latency — something marketers will hear about significantly more as 5G ramps up.
Having a lower latency, Ericsson says, improves how well an autonomous vehicle can make a slam-on-the-brake type stop. That might be important should someone dash from the sidewalk into the middle of autonomous-car traffic.
An Ericsson engineer told me the latency for the vehicle I was driving was 4 milliseconds, or 4ms, which is far less than the 30ms to 60ms often seen with 4G. However, because the setup had four 4K screens displaying video in real-time, the total latency for what I experienced was 56ms.
As the Ericsson engineer told me, the screens were overkill, but necessary for what Ericsson was trying to show attendees. Experts here at Mobile World Congress believe 5G will be available to the masses in the U.S. by 2021, so there’s a lot of time before something like driving a car remotely becomes a reality. There’s also much work that needs to be done in terms of range; it wouldn’t have been possible for me to control the vehicle from 500 miles away, for example.
As the course came close to an end, the same engineer told me to slam on the brakes; I hit the clutch multiple times instead. The Ericsson employee then took his hand and began tapping on the correct pedal I needed to hit, and I hit that medal pedal, hard, with the young engineer’s hand caught in between.
I apologized, profusely, and the engineer was a really good sport about the whole thing, despite the fact he was in some obvious pain.
Unlike the orange cones, this wasn’t intentionally, and the lowest latency in the world can’t account for such human error from the likes of me.