VIDEO: New Zealand's first 5G-connected driverless car takes to Auckland's streets

Spoiler: no crashes.
5G, Aotearoa, New Zealand, Auckland, Tech, Technology, Spark, Ohmio, Car, Transportation, Society, Innovation, MWC, Mobile World Congress, Sustainability, Future, Environment, Safety, Vehicle, Connectivity

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New Zealand-based Spark and Ohmio Automation are pushing the boundaries of what's possible with 5G. Photo credit: Spark and Ohmio Automation

There’s been a lot of hype about 5G-connected cars lately. Case in point: at the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC, or El Congreso Mundial de Móviles en español) in Barcelona, more than a few telecommunications companies had – at least what they claimed to be – 5G-connected motor vehicles (in all manner of shapes, sizes, colours and brands) parked at their stands.

But few have been actually testing 5G-connected vehicles on actual roads people use – much less testing 5G-connected driverless vehicles on actual roads people use. But down in New Zealand, that very thing has now been done.

This past week, New Zealand’s first 5G-connected driverless car was tested on Auckland streets, as a result of a collaboration between Spark New Zealand and Ohmio Automotion.

The test was carried out in a controlled area in the Wynyard Quarter area of the City of Sails on the morning of March 13, using Spark’s pre-commercial 5G network available as part of its 5G Innovation Lab.

Spark launched its Innovation Lab in November 2018 to showcase 5G technology to New Zealand businesses. Now, Spark’s network team will begin working closely with Kiwi businesses to test the technical capabilities of 5G and enhance products and experiences.

The 5G-connected driverless car was developed by Ohmio, a New Zealand company which has been trialling autonomous vehicles at Christchurch Airport.  Since these trials, the car has been upgraded with new technology to ensure it integrates with Spark’s 5G test network.

Dr Mahmood Hikmet, Ohmio’s head of research and development, says: “We believe this test with Spark is only the second of its type in the world. Today has demonstrated some of the exciting opportunities 5G will enable for our autonomous car technology.”

He says more. “A 5G network can be up to 100 times faster than 4G, which unlocks the true potential for autonomous driving, as messages need to be transmitted and decisions made in real-time. A significant drop in latency – or the reaction time when one device talks to another – will give cars human-like reflexes and opens up multiple possibilities for connected infrastructure and a smart city ecosystem.”

Photo credit: Spark and Ohmio Automation

The 5G-connected car carries up to four people. Using a tablet, passengers are able to hail the car which moves down the street to collect you. Inside, a dashboard tells you what the car is monitoring in real time using LiDAR (the next iteration of radar technology, which uses lasers and light to create a three dimensional image, and analytics to make pre-determined decisions) technology to help make sense of the surrounding environment.

While the vehicle is capable of driving itself at up to 25 kilometres per hour, the trial capped the vehicles’ top speed at 7 kilometres per hour during the pre-programmed test drive loop, which lasted approximately seven minutes.

Ohmio plans to launch more driverless cars in more closed facilities across New Zealand, including airports, university campuses, retirement villages and hospitals. The company also plans to gain on-road certification and look for opportunities to use the cars on public streets alongside regular vehicles. One example of this is a “first and last mile solution” to carry people short distances and provide a connection to or from transport hubs, reducing the need for park-and-rides.

Colin Brown, Spark’s lead for network evolution, says: “Our partnership with Ohmio demonstrates the potential of 5G, which goes far beyond the speed of mobile phones and wireless broadband connections. Many industries and businesses in New Zealand will have their own ideas on what their 5G enabled transformative technology could be. We want to encourage businesses to begin thinking about their own ‘driverless car’ technology, and how they can prepare for the future of 5G.”

Brown, who recently attended Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, says the speed at which 5G is being rolled out globally was on show at the event. “5G was a major feature at Mobile World Congress – having launched in a number of markets with businesses across multiple industries, from gaming to healthcare, already taking advantage to launch new products and services for customers.”

Spark’s preparation and testing for the 5G network started in March last year with a 5G mobile speed test in Auckland and Wellington. In Auckland, Spark achieved speeds of up to 18Gbp/s – which is around 100 times faster than many typical wireless device users in Aotearoa (the name for New Zealand in te reo Māori, the language of the indigenous Māori people) currently experience.

Photo credit: Spark and Ohmio Automation

Spark is on the countdown to July 2020 – by which time it aims to have New Zealand’s first 5G network live on the Auckland Harbour for Emirates Team New Zealand to use as part of its preparation to defend the America’s Cup.

Brown says: “As our 5G Innovation Lab evolves, we are looking forward to working closely with more New Zealand businesses to test and explore the future of 5G together. Today is another step on the road to 5G for Spark and New Zealand businesses. Over the coming months we will continue rolling out more real world tests of 5G-connected technology with businesses.”

Worth noting: during the trial, the 5G-connected vehicle didn’t crash once.

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