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AI/Automation

T-Mobile's 5G to connect drivers with remote-controlled cars in Vegas

T-Mobile said it's speedy 5G network will underpin a new commercial service launching later this year that will feature motorists remotely piloting driverless cars around Las Vegas. The offering may help to shed light on two critical elements still mostly missing in the global telecom industry's ongoing shift to 5G: How the technology might support new, never-before-seen services, and how operators might make money from those services.

At the heart of T-Mobile's announcement this week is startup Halo, which is working on driverless car technology and is also a graduate of the 5G Open Innovation Lab co-founded by T-Mobile. The startup plans to begin offering a small-scale commercial service that will allow the company's drivers to remotely control cars around Las Vegas via T-Mobile's 5G network. According to FierceWireless, the startup plans to initially operate just five cars in the city as a way to gradually test out its technology in a commercial setting.

Leveling expectations

Importantly, Halo's service will not rely on the type of driverless car technology supported by companies like Tesla. Tesla and many other autonomous driving companies rely on software running inside a car to do the driving, essentially allowing a computer to make the decisions. Halo, however, is relying on in-house drivers to remotely operate its driverless cars over T-Mobile's 5G network. The company also uses an "Advanced Safe Stop" mechanism that ensures its cars immediately come to a full stop if a potential safety hazard or system anomaly is detected. Further, the company is using an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that "learns in the background while humans control the vehicle, building a unique feedback loop to achieve Level 3 capabilities over time."

Level 3 autonomous driving is basically midway between regular human driving (Level 0) and full-blown computer driving (Level 5). Level 3 involves a car driving itself, but only under certain conditions and with an attentive human.

"Full autonomy is a massive challenge from both a technical and social trust perspective that won't be solved for years to come," said Anand Nandakumar, the founder and CEO of Halo, in a release. "But Halo has been designed to address these challenges by building automation over time starting with a solution that consumers will feel comfortable using today."

Further, Halo's remote drivers won't actually have any human passengers. Instead, they'll be shuttling the company's cars between customers. Halo customers will basically ask for a car to come to their pick-up location, and then the customer will drive the car to the destination. When they get out of the car, Halo's in-house drivers take over to pilot the car to its next customer.

The result is an on-demand car service.

The 5G component

According to Halo's executives, the system requires a speedy mobile network that can stream data from its cars to its remote drivers. "This is where T-Mobile is such a great ally for us," Halo's Nandakumar told FierceWireless. "It's a good partnership for us because 5G makes this vision a reality," with low latency and high bandwidth required to handle all the cameras and integration with the car. "We are able to stream all this data up to T-Mobile's 5G network."

And therein lies a key element in the Halo and T-Mobile relationship: It's a service that would be difficult to pull off with a slower 4G network. After all, 5G promises to provide not only speedy downloads but also snappy connections that don't suffer from the lag, or latency, that can plague 4G networks. Latency may not matter much in Netflix video streams, but it can be very important in real-time applications ranging from online games to remote-controlled cars.

And for operators, services like those from Halo will be critical to expanding their businesses beyond smartphones. After all, most Americans now own a smartphone, a situation that is forcing operators to look elsewhere for growth. The prospect of sending large amounts of data to a new class of devices – such as cars – represents a potentially tantalizing new opportunity for 5G network operators.

To be clear though, there are plenty of obstacles facing both T-Mobile and Halo. The driverless car market remains in its infancy, and requires coordination among passengers, providers and regulators. For example, Halo does boast support from Las Vegas officials but the company's system does not benefit from technology designed to connect cars with each other and with roadside infrastructure like stop lights. That technology, dubbed C-V2X, remains under debate at the FCC and other government agencies.

And for T-Mobile, the company is one of several hoping to jumpstart the 5G market with investments into startups like Halo. Verizon, for example, operates a similar startup-incubation program called 5G Studio.

Moreover, T-Mobile may soon face additional competition from the wireless industry's newest entrant, Dish Network. The satellite TV provider recently purchased 9 million prepaid customers from T-Mobile, and plans to switch on its planned 5G network starting in Las Vegas in the third quarter of this year. Dish has pledged to chase the kind of Internet of Things (IoT) business represented by Halo with services that are potentially dramatically cheaper than those offered by T-Mobile.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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