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United States / Analyst Insights
How 5G Could Start a Transportation Revolution in Smart Cities

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by Dylan Miller
Apr 06 2018

The technological revolution that brought the personal computer, smartphone and the internet to the masses has also improved the lives of millions of Americans living and working in cities. Behind the scenes of every municipality, modeling software is used to create evacuation routes or environmentally friendly towers, while consumer-facing tech includes sensors to help drivers find parking spots and apps that feed meters. However, the most significant developments may be yet to come. In fact, the implementation of fifth generation wireless systems (5G) may help solve urban dwellers’ most painful headache: traffic. “Smart” features, including self-driving cars and traffic-management systems, in tandem with 5G, could reduce hours wasted in traffic by the millions, while saving drivers billions of dollars and making intra-city transportation a more efficient, convenient and pleasant experience.

One of the biggest barriers to fully implementing 5G technology on a city-wide basis is the cost associated with improving infrastructure to enable the technology to fully function. According to the CTIA, US telecom operators are expected to invest approximately $275.0 billion over the next seven years to deploy 5G wireless technology, $93.0 billion of which will be specifically earmarked for construction expenses. Investments will span across the entirety of city infrastructure, including buildings, traffic lights, public transportation and even building electricity systems. All of this will require significant time and resources from both telecommunications providers and governmental organizations, potentially resulting in private-public partnerships designed to fully roll-out and develop investment and integration plans.

The implementation of wireless 5G technology and the development of so-called “smart cities” could prove to be particularly beneficial with regard to transportation. For example, smart traffic-management systems operating over a 5G network could increase the flow of traffic by changing traffic signals based on real-time traffic patterns monitored by cameras and sensors connected to a shared network. Carnegie Mellon University tested the use of smart traffic lights (though not operating over a 5G network) in the city of Pittsburgh, which resulted in a 40.0% reduction in vehicle wait time, a 26.0% faster commute and a 21.0% percent decrease in vehicle emissions. Such results would be welcomed by drivers in major cities across the United States, including New York, where the average driving speed was found to be 8.5 miles per hour in 2014, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. This would also help taxi drivers reduce gas expenses and increase the frequency of pickups, while also increasing the efficiency and ability of couriers and local delivery services.

As this new technology improves transportation networks in cities across the country, its effects could stretch beyond city limits. For example, shorter commute times may entice some to move further from city centers, or perhaps even out of cities altogether. While this defies the recent trend of Americans moving to cities, the mass deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology over a 5G network would enable cars to travel closer together (otherwise known as platooning), increasing highway capacity and decreasing traffic and travel times for commuters. However, these developments are contingent on the development of 5G networks, which must be available to ensure the safety of platooning. Additionally, self-driving cars still have severe regulatory and technological hurdles to overcome.

The implementation of 5G networks across the country will be the force that facilitates the smart city revolution. 5G networks are able to carry data at speeds unmatched by older networks, ensuring safe and efficient communication between cars, traffic systems and lights. While the proliferation of these networks is still a few years away, trials have already happened in major cities and locations across the globe, including at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Additionally, major companies such as AT&T and Verizon launched 5G trials in select US cities in 2017, and both expect commercial deployment in 2020. While small-scale developments, including smart traffic lights, will continue to improve transportation, more significant projects will be waiting in the wings until 5G networks reach their full potential.