Delivering the Future of Transportation in Europe

Open standards and industrial policy will determine success

I recently attended the virtual 5G/Automotive Conference hosted by Eurecom, France Brevets, IMT and Qualcomm. The event had a distinctly European focus with a unique mix of researchers, car-makers, operators, policymakers, media and analysts. And although it didn’t offer any groundbreaking news, it was nonetheless important. The variety of participants and wide-ranging discussion illustrated the breadth of collaboration, innovation and depth of partnerships needed to realize the potential of 5G in the automotive industry.

The conference builds on an agreement signed in March 2019 between higher-education and research institutions Eurecom and IMT, France Brevets and Qualcomm for the funding of research into new technologies involving the 5G New Radio standard. This kind of public and private sector collaboration is critical to the innovation and coordinated progress that will reap the biggest rewards from 5G and enable the transformation of transport networks and smarter cities.

There’s a temptation to view 5G as a technology led by the mobile industry, and autonomous vehicles as the domain of Silicon Valley, China and a crop of automotive manufacturers. The reality is that the success of these technologies depends on commitment and investment from a swathe of players from the tech sector to local government, city planners and private enterprises.

For example, the vision of autonomous driving won’t simply be enabled by cameras, sensors and lidar in vehicles. It requires 5G and cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) communication to connect vehicles to each other and surrounding infrastructure. It requires effort from local governments to ensure road and city planning is designed to maximize their potential, and it requires investment from a plethora of public bodies and private enterprises to help create the supporting ecosystem and infrastructure — everything from parking infrastructure for driverless vehicles to robotaxi services. And for these efforts to really have an impact, they must happen at a large scale.

This vision is a journey and demands certain steps be taken. Two important ones are innovation and licensing. They were a prominent theme in opening remarks from Alex Rogers, executive vice president of Qualcomm and president of Qualcomm Technology Licensing, at the event. He emphasized that consistent, global standards for 4G and 5G have been a pivotal enabler for European car-makers, but warned that effort is needed to ensure that fragmentation doesn’t inhibit innovation and growth. I believe this also underlines the importance of standards to other elements of the automotive stack. A good example is V2X, which is slowly consolidating into C-V2X, yet remains fragmented by an opposing standard called DSRC, or dedicated short-range communications.

Mr Rogers also stressed the importance of a licensing structure for intellectual property that fosters innovation. CCS Insight has highlighted the importance of this in the past given that continuous innovation and advancement depends on a licensing structure that protects and rewards long-term, sizeable investments made in underlying technologies (see Rethinking Technology Licensing).

Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm, to name but a few, all spend more than 15% of revenue on research and development. Business models and investment levels may vary, but all these companies rely on protection of intellectual property and royalties to justify sometimes speculative investments that later transform a technology like 5G.

As 5G begins to affect a wide range of industries beyond mobile and including automotive, it’s critical that the principles that have enabled the long-term investment in research are encouraged to maintain technology innovation and create a platform for other sectors to benefit. ETSI will play a leading role by providing a forum for open and collaborative development of standards.

Although the absence of automakers from the standards organization has been a concern, the decision by Audi and Continental to join the forum is significant. So too is the advent of the 5G Automotive Association, with both developments showing a commitment from mobile and auto industries to work together to develop mobility and transportation services.

Paired with the right industrial policy, this collaboration between private and public sectors is essential to getting the most value from 5G connectivity and delivering progress in several sectors. This commitment is clear in the Connecting Europe Facility, which facilitates interaction between public administrations, companies and citizens with an investment programme built on core elements such as connectivity and electrification. This has clear parallels to the approach being taken by the Biden administration in the US.

The 5G/Automotive conference gave a fascinating insight into the coordinated approach that’s helping to build the future of efficient, clean and safe transportation. Coordination coupled with a commitment to open standards and industrial policy that encourages innovation is central to driving progress. An important next step is a solution to licensing essential cellular technology in the automotive industry, but this event showed that Europe is paving the foundations to let innovation prosper.