The white Ford Kuga does another lap. It comes round the bend and into a straight stretch with a traffic light that turns red. A screen inside the car warns the driver to start braking in order to stop in time. A timer is activated and counts down the seconds remaining until the light turns green again. The roof of this vehicle contains a strut which holds cables and sensors to measure details such as speed and exact location. None of this is surprising to the group of engineers and technicians who are watching, and neither are the cameras in the interior or the measuring device that takes up a large part of the boot. Telefónica is using Dekra's test track on the PTA - Andalusian Technology Park - to try out the 5G technology it has developed with the aim of advancing connected mobility.
The Kuga, loaded with computers and 0sensors, moves around the track which has intersections of different types and simulates the layout of any town. Once the test vehicle has returned to the garage, a group of engineers downloads the data collected and feeds it into powerful processing units. These can come up with information which would be impossible for a person to produce, purely because of the enormous quantity of data.
Cars that drive themselves are the dream of many people and manufacturers, but it will take years before they can move completely autonomously through the streets, and then the occupants can sit in the back seats and even have a siesta if they like. Before that can happen, this connected driving has to be perfected.
Mercedes Fernández, the head of Innovation at Telefónica, believes that, thanks to 5G technology, this connected driving will be part of everyday life in the not-so-distant future.
"At our connected car and cybersecurity facilities in Malaga we are going to continue certifying 5G solutions which help to configure an ecosystem of increasingly secure vehicle communications," she said. She recognises that some people are not sure what the difference is between an autonomous car and intelligent driving.
In autonomous driving, the car practically takes control of the steering wheel. Driver intervention is minimal and, ideally, non-existent. In connected driving, the vehicle uses its own sensors in addition to information provided by the sensors of other cars, traffic lights, traffic signs and junctions, with the aim of assisting the driver. If there is an obstacle in the road, the car emits a warning signal in advance so the driver can brake in time or swerve around it. If a traffic light changes from orange to red, the car is invited to stop.
These are just two examples of how connected driving can increase safety and comfort.
At the moment, the network that offers the fastest speed and guarantees this connection is 5G. Fernández says that Telefónica has successfully developed the entire chain related to driving. From the small module installed inside the car to the software programmes that are downloaded onto a tablet, for example, and enable the car to be supervised and monitored. No information can resist telemetry. Sudden braking, a change of driver, a technical stop, what music has been listened to... everything is logged.
The engineers behind all this are thrilled by the possibilities of applying 5G to a vehicle. Apart from fewer accidents, if autonomous driving is achieved at some time the speed of the connection means passengers will be able to enjoy a powerful entertainment package.
The Ford Kuga continues to drive around the Dekra test track in Malaga, which is a pioneer in Europe. If we scale up what we are seeing here, a whole range of possibilities opens up if this technology becomes widespread. For example, a vehicle that is approaching in the opposite direction can warn that a pedestrian who has just got off a bus is about to cross the road. The fusion of the 5G connection with the data provided by GPS means that some cars "communicate" with others. Only the drivers of the vehicles involved need to be alerted. However, until this is achieved in all traffic on our roads, the Ford Kuga will have to continue going round and round the test track.
This revolution is not only on the roads. That much is clear after visiting the Dekra facilities. The cameras used by car manufacturers may be sufficient to guarantee an overtaking manoeuvre or a turn in the street, but the sensors will not be enough for the driver to hand over control altogether. A connected car needs information: precise data in real time about the distance from other vehicles, the state of the traffic, manoeuvres by other cars and the weather forecast.
"Telefónica has coordinated the project and deployed the 5G network together with the solution for cybersecurity dedicated to vehicle communications and the solution that fuses the identity of people with that of things," said Mercedes Fernández.