Verizon inks first 5G automotive deal with Audi

Verizon inked a deal to equip Audi vehicles in the U.S. with 5G connectivity, estimated to start with select model-year 2024, marking the carrier’s first 5G automotive deal.

The technology will be embedded in Audi vehicles and supported by Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network, which includes C-band and millimeter wave spectrum. Since launching in January, Verizon’s C-band 5G now covers 100 million people, with a target of 175 million in 2023 and expanding to more than 250 million by 2024 and beyond.

From Verizon’s perspective, the carrier is excited to have premium partner like Audi for its first 5G automotive deal, according to TJ Fox, SVP of Industrial IoT and Automotive at Verizon.

He highlighted the match with Verizon and its network. “Especially in the 5G environment, which will enable the kind of connectivity that Audi can take advantage of for their customers all the way down to their telematics, to the things we’ll be doing from an edge perspective to C-V2X,” said Fox, who is a nearly 30-year Verizon veteran and took the lead of the carrier’s new Industrial IoT and Automotive unit last year. It’s a combo between the vehicle and Verizon network “to provide services and capabilities that we’ve never seen before in a mass environment.”

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The relationship with Audi isn’t entirely new, as Verizon’s already the automaker’s connectivity provider for LTE programs, and Pom Malhotra, senior director of Connected Services at Audi America, expressed enthusiasm to be among the first automakers to take the leap into 5G.

Audi was already the first to introduce 3G and LTE worldwide “so moving into 5G for us is part of what we consider core technology strategy,” Malhotra told Fierce.

AT&T nabbed its first 5G connected car deal with GM in August, for select models by 2024 and the expectation for 5G in millions of GM vehicles over the next 10 years.

Malhotra didn’t disclose how many vehicles Audi expects to have 5G at the start but did say this represents a shift in the vehicle hardware itself.

“We will basically be shifting the models to the 5G hardware all at the same time,” he said, adding that when that cut off happens, any vehicle then approaching either its model-year change over, or the start of production, will come with new hardware. “Within the span of year or so you’ll pretty much have every vehicle on 5G.”

5G enhancing performance, in-car experiences, safety features

As Audi looks to shift to the next generation of communications technology, it views 5G as a way to enhance multiple aspects across performance, in-vehicle experiences and safety.

Audi decided to adopt 5G through the lens of three pillars, Malhotra explained. One is whether it improves on what already exists, which he said 5G delivers in very significant ways. Those include speed and bandwidth available to users; and better latencies which improve experiences like in-vehicle Wi-Fi, satellite imagery for 3D mapping, and voice responsiveness.

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The second is whether it can help deliver new features Audi envisions for future cars. To that end, Malhotra called out augmented reality experiences, over-the-air software updates (more on that later), and new relevant safety features through technologies like C-V2X.

“All of those are enabled through 5G, and the technology itself is designed to give a stellar experience that is incapable of being provided through the current network communication protocols,” Malhotra said.

When it comes to 5G, part of the aim is to make access to information in cars extremely real-time to improve the ownership experience beyond - relying on those low latencies, high bandwidths and eventually edge capabilities. Malhotra mentioned, for example, overlaying information on existing reality to improve navigation, points of interest, or to enhance the travel experience for someone that’s new to a city. Gaming and in-car entertainment will also be enhanced by 5G, with faster downloads and streaming at higher quality.

On the safety technology front, Audi isn’t looking just at those in the car, but paying close attention to safety and happenings outside the vehicle as well.

“For the first time now with 5G we can look at bringing active safety technology into the car in a realistic way with the kinds of application performance that’s required,” he continued.

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Audi is one major auto player that’s been promoting C-V2X as an enabling technology and it’s one Malhotra said is “absolutely on our roadmap” – both in its direct form (where communication happens directly between a vehicle and roadside infrastructure or other nearby road occupants and doesn’t need cellular networks) as well how C-V2X expands into communication via mobile edge compute.

“There are several use case situations where in the future, because of the amount of communication going on around the vehicle that it would actually make it a lot more efficient for some of that to happen through edge networks,” Malhotra said. “This is where the MEC capabilities that Verizon is building become very very interesting for us to explore and these are areas we are discussing with them.”

Verizon’s MEC efforts include partnerships with major cloud players such Google, Microsoft and counts 17 cities where 5G Edge with partner AWS is currently available.

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Audi already has a Local Hazard Information service, which currently runs on 4G, that allows Audi vehicles to warn each other about accidents, traffic jams, icy roads and other pertinent alerts – and which says 5G can help send earlier and more accurately.

Vehicles as the ultimate mobile device

As Audi looks to introduce 5G technology to vehicles, a third focus is evolving with technology and industry and ensuring vehicles are future-proof, particularly as all-electric vehicles are poised to stay on the road for longer periods of time.  

“The Audi vehicle itself will become the ultimate mobile device,” Fox said, noting that like a smartphone today, the car would be very personalized to the owner thanks to communications capabilities.

It’s also where constant updates, in terms of firmware and software come in, and potential to take advantage of the edge network in a 5G environment Verizon’s working to build, according to Fox.

Similar to smartphones which are refreshed with regular updates for new features and functionalities, Audi vehicles could be updated based on software and platforms once they’re on the road, with continual enhancements that are introduced very rapidly. In that way, it envisions cars operating in a better, more efficient mode three years after they comes off the line versus day one, Fox said.

“The vehicle is not obsolete as it comes off the line but continues to get better and faster and relying on the low latency, high bandwidth of 5G Ultra Wideband and capabilities with MEC,” he continued.

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Malhotra explained that over-the-air updates are how customers expect their cars to be refreshed, and to do so requires a lot of bandwidth and the proper management of downloads of functions in the vehicle. Updates happen today but through a different mechanism where the functionality already resides in the vehicle and then is activated. Audi aims to get to the point where new features are actually downloaded in the vehicle, where 5G is designed to help. The other area where OTA updates become important, according to Malhotra, is automated vehicles, which he said need a lot of communication with the cloud and require two significant architectural components: edge computing and 5G.

Both “are areas that Verizon is dominant in and bring to market in a big way, and we really look forward to how we can change these experiences,” he said.

As for pricing models, for 5G-connected services, Malhotra said 5G opens up some interesting possibilities and they are looking at how it may evolve for the future. But for premium customers Audi largely sees services being bundled together, in a similar form to an unlimited package, as a model that makes sense. And it’s not very different from how customers buy a service package from Audi today that includes unlimited data, without the need to go through Verizon.

Granted, to usher in new technologies, that means letting go of older to make room for the new he said, pointing to 3G shutdowns that are coming from major carriers.

“It is beneficial for an automaker like us that relies so heavily on telecommunications technology to always be leading edge and take the leap forward into the next generation well before there is any line of sight on technology obsolescence,” Malhotra continued.

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Most of Audi’s current vehicles are on 4G LTE today, which he said isn’t going away any time soon. However, now is the right time to jump on 5G to shift future models to the technology to achieve the customer experience continuity Audi’s aiming for, Malhotra noted.

He acknowledged that the shift to 5G is not a simple switch, but said it can be done in a way that’s pretty seamless in terms of not impacting the rest of the car design.

“We do a lot of integration testing in every market we go into including here, and there’s a fair amount of work that is happening to enable the kind of applications we want to run over 5G,” he said, including autonomous features, C-V2X, augmented and virtual reality, as well as data analytics and how data is processed and managed in the vehicle.

Audi isn’t naming partners on the 5G vehicle modules yet.

Verizon for its part is seeing interest in 5G for automotive “across the board” according to Fox, including commercial, robotic, autonomous robotic and last-mile driving.