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Home >Technology >News >The coming US-China race over 5G in cars

It has been more than two years since people started being able to talk to each other over 5G networks. Now cars can use 5G technology to talk to each other, too.

But the business could develop into another source of U.S.-China competition. Chinese companies have been working longer on such vehicle communications based on advanced cellular technology, using a standard the U.S. embraced only last year, and they hope to take the lead in global markets. The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, are cautious about using Chinese communications equipment.

The use of 5G in car-to-car communication is still in its infancy. But it has the potential to make driving safer, more convenient and eventually autonomous. Planners describe a world where smartcars tell one another where they are and where they are headed, preventing accidents. Pedestrians could be protected as well by signals through their phones. And traffic lights and road signs could relay real-time information to prevent congestion.

In a few Chinese cities, “customers are already using the technology to receive red-light warnings and other notifications," says Ford Motor Co. spokesman Wesley Sherwood. “We believe there is great potential for the technology globally."

It is likely to take a while for industry players and local governments to build out systems supporting car-to-car 5G communication and address security issues such as the risk of hackers disrupting car communications. The ultimate application—a purely autonomous network of cars coordinating among themselves—remains a distant vision.

The idea of cars communicating is nothing new. More than two decades ago, the Federal Communications Commission allocated spectrum for a particular type of short-range communication between vehicles.

Speaking last November, the FCC’s chairman, Ajit Pai, said the slow rollout of services on that spectrum reminded him of a 1970 song by the group Chairmen of the Board, “Give Me Just a Little More Time." Contrary to the song’s prediction that with time “our love will surely grow," Mr. Pai said that companies never developed much affection for the older technology standard and that “life is too short for us to make the mistake of continuing" to allow valuable spectrum to lie fallow.

At the urging of Mr. Pai, who stepped down from his post this year, the FCC voted in November to give part of the spectrum to a different standard called “cellular vehicle-to-everything" or C-V2X that is backed by Qualcomm Inc. By piggybacking on existing networks for regular smartphones, C-V2X can take advantage of high data speeds and work with a variety of devices.

China has already been working on C-V2X services for years. Initially those were designed for fourth-generation networks, including a city-level network in eastern Jiangsu province installed by Huawei Technologies Co. in 2018. Now the transition to 5G is under way.

“China is at the forefront of C-V2X development and has strongly consolidated it in its industrial transport policy over the past few years," Johannes Springer, director general of the Munich-based trade group 5GAA, said in a February news release issued at an industry event in Shanghai.

According to Mr. Springer’s group, China is the only country where vehicles are commercially available that can use 5G with C-V2X. Last year, several leading Chinese auto makers including state-controlled FAW Group Corp. and Warren Buffett-backed BYD Co. came out with C-V2X models, using equipment from Chinese suppliers.

They were followed this year by Ford with two C-V2X models in China, the Explorer and Edge Plus. Drivers of those Ford models in some areas of the cities of Wuxi and Changsha can get information such as the best cruising speed to hit green lights, according to the car maker. In the U.S., Ford says it plans to begin deploying C-V2X models in 2022.

In Europe, major car makers such as Volkswagen AG’s Audi, BMW AG and Daimler AG are working on equipping cars with the new technology. One project backed by European car makers and Huawei has been testing remote-controlled driving, in which an operator at a central location could take over a car using 5G if a driver is disabled.

In Japan, Subaru Corp. and mobile-phone operator SoftBank Corp. said last November that they successfully used the 5G version of C-V2X in tests with merging traffic. At a Subaru test track, an autonomously driven car trying to merge onto a highway received permission from another car already on the highway, allowing it to slip safely in front.

Despite the spread of C-V2X in the leading global automotive markets, the head start enjoyed by some Chinese suppliers in developing the backbone of the technology could cause some friction, as it has with 5G itself.

The U.S. and its allies have limited the use of Chinese equipment in their 5G networks, sometimes prompting threats of retaliation by Beijing. A spokesman for SoftBank says its test of vehicle merging didn’t rely on Chinese equipment, relying instead on European suppliers as with the rest of its 5G network.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on May 11 that allowing major Chinese telecommunications suppliers “to participate in or to have any control over any part of a 5G network creates, we think, unacceptable risk to national security."

Regarding 5G, a Chinese government spokesman said “setting up barriers or abusing the national security concept to suppress specific countries runs counter to the basic law of scientific progress and the shared interests of all." Ford declined to name the suppliers for the C-V2X technology in its vehicles.

While Japan is still studying uses of 5G for cars on its roads, says Kenji Ueki, an official at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the risk of hacking must be taken seriously if 5G is used to control vehicles. In February, Japan’s top auto makers and other companies formed a body to gather information on cybersecurity risks for connected cars.

Car communication technology might end up using the same global C-V2X standard but different equipment for different regions.

Alps Alpine Co., a leading Japanese maker of car electronics, in March released samples of what it said were the first Japanese-made 5G modules for automotive use, designed to slot into the new car-communications systems. The company says the modules could be used around the world, except in China because customers there have different needs.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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