On one hand, John Avery believes transportation stands on the cusp of dramatic transformation.
Enhanced by 5G networks, more machines can communicate with each other. Higher bandwidth and lower latency will enhance automated operations. Artificial intelligence can be dispersed both in the cloud and in edge computing.
“Before 5G, those things just weren’t possible,” said Avery, director of the Advanced Technology Development Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Now, with the bandwidth and latencies that 5G allows, the doors have opened for these new ways of thinking about what mobile networks can enable. I really think it’s going to be a whole greenfield of innovations.”
On the other hand, he sees a big barrier. Businesses that could usher in this next era had scant opportunities to actually test innovations utilizing 5G technology. So that’s what Avery and others have sought to provide.
This year, the Advanced Technology Development Center partnered with T-Mobile and Curiosity Lab, an economic development initiative, to found an incubator devoted to helping startups and big businesses test and evaluate innovations underpinned by 5G connectivity. The program, called the 5G Connected Future, is housed at Curiosity Lab’s 500-acre campus in Peachtree Corners, Ga.
It’s the same Atlanta suburb where, this month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted the White House’s infrastructure bill.
Curiosity Lab is city-owned. It serves as a canvas for next-generation transportation testing. Among other things, it contains a 3-mile autonomous-vehicle test track that mixes AVs with regular, human-driven traffic. Blending the two makes for ideal testing, says Betsy Plattenburg, executive director.
“When people are testing, it’s a little bit of the Wild West,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s why it’s valuable.”
T-Mobile has outfitted its Extended Range and Ultra Capacity 5G networks across the technology park, where the connection can be used not just on the AV test track, but in testing drones, traffic management systems and more.
For entrepreneurs, testing is just one component of the incubator program. Other aspects include business coaching to help launch and scale products, education on regulatory issues and, in some cases, simply on 5G itself.
The officials expect some companies to be specifically there to operate in the 5G environment; for others, the wireless tech may be indirectly related to advances with their products.
“Not everybody understands what it is and why it matters in terms of their startup,” Plattenburg said. “There’s two reasons that’s important: One, they might be able to use it to enhance their product, and make it especially relevant. Or their startup may be threatened by 5G. Different industries will be changing dramatically.”
Other AV test tracks offer 5G testing. But Avery says the ability to test in partially real-world environments and participate in the business incubator make the 5G Connected Future incubator unlike others. One more benefit? Curiosity Lab does not charge companies to use its facilities.
“It’s a half-step out of the laboratory,” he said.
“It’s in the real world. You can get a lot of data from it. … I’m not aware of another system where you have that sort combination of services in one place that elevate your innovations.”