Asia’s newest tiger economy is booming – and so is the traffic. But 5G technology could help the residents of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam beat gridlock, as it has done in other cities around the world.
Street dust, motorcycles, and loud whistles. Vietnam traffic is a cacophony of all these.
“You are watching women push a bánh mì cart on Hai Bà Trưng faster than your motorcycle,” says Taylor Buser, a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (which was once Saigon).
Locked in a city map which hasn’t much changed since the late 1800s, this city has packed in, and up, but not out.
And now with 13 million people in its metropolitan area, it’s also the largest city of a country whose economy is throbbing.
Foreign direct investment in Vietnam was up 69.1% in the first five months of 2019, from the same part of the year before – a four-year high of $16.7 billion.
Great for the country, less great for traffic.
But Vietnam’s first 5G base stations buzzed on in April, atop the offices of Viettel. On par with the first limited April rollouts in South Korea and the United States.
And from a traffic perspective, Vietnam “can use that to inform users that traffic is building up in this site, and can inform drivers to divert their journey”, says Huan Nguyen, who grew up in Hanoi, and is now an associate professor at London’s Middlesex University.
Dr Nguyen helped run a 5G and transport conference in Vietnam in October.
Bringing together international and Vietnamese experts to explore how 5G technology can help forecast accidents, and manage congestion along busy roads.
Faster data, accessible from everywhere and with extremely low latency, can help countries fix their traffic jams, says Dr Nguyen.
As well as directing freight traffic. And making public transport alternatives work better, he says.
Old map of Saigon – as the city has grown huge, it has stayed within these boundaries and for the most part these roads.
They see me rolling
With 5G, sensors and cameras can monitor traffic, and then traffic signals can change to respond to real-time patterns in traffic.
Using smart sensors and streetlights to improve traffic isn’t just a matter of theory.
Carnegie Mellon University tried installing smart traffic lights in Pittsburgh.
A 40% reduction in vehicle wait time, and 26% faster average commute, was the result – as well as a drop in vehicle emissions of 21%.
This approach is called vehicle-to-infrastructure.
Combine it with augmented reality technology, and the result can be new navigation aids, like overlaying street names on a view of the road ahead.
Mercedes-Benz has been developing this as part of its MBUX multimedia system.
Arshia Gratiot (Founder of ThirdAutoSpace) addressing the attendees during the Official Side Event organised by ERTICO and MaaS Alliance: “Is blockchain the answer to cybersecurity?” at the International Transport Forum’s 2018 Summit on “Transport Safety and Security” in Leipzig, Germany on 24 May 2018. Picture Credit: International Transport Forum
As driverless cars hit the roads, 5G networks “will form the backbone for any kind of autonomous vehicles to be able to communicate between themselves and infrastructure like traffic lights,” says Arshia Gratiot, founder of Third Space Auto.
Her startup, based in London, Helsinki, and Bangalore, creates AI systems for driverless vehicles.
“Standard protocols can never have the speed required for the amount of data being produced by autonomous vehicle sensors,” she says.
Sensors on bridges, alongside roads, or on traffic lights will be able to access the internet directly with 5G.
And capturing data from sensors in cars will help city planners and transport engineers build better machine learning models.
Which will make it easier to understand how driving variables relate to each other in a particular city, says Dr Attaphongse Taparugssanagorn, an assistant professor from Thailand’s Asian Institute of Technology who was at the Vietnamese conference.
Things like vehicle speed, the gap between vehicles, the type of car, traffic flow, and traffic density.
Then when you understand better how traffic in your country works, faster data will let you get information to cars in time to help them go around budding traffic jams. And warn them about accidents.
Finally, the low latency of 5G networks gives new opportunities for vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
Cars able to talk to the vehicles ahead of and behind them can also potentially travel closer together.
Called platooning, this will increase the capacity of roads, and slice commuting times.
Mikkel Svane – CEO of Zendesk. Picture Credit: Mikkel Svane
More speed and better connectivity from 5G also will help cars become more personalised.
So digital assistants like Alexa will follow you to your car, with your to-do list and diary.
And your playlists, as it pre-plans your errands around traffic to make your day more efficient.
“That’s going to become more and more the norm – everything you own will be connected,” says Mikkel Svane, chief executive of San Francisco customer service platform Zendesk.
With 5G, “you don’t have to be so cheap with the kind of data you send back and forth”, so you’ll be “always connected to the mothership, to the internet,” he says.
“That’s definitely going to change products and services” which will be available to you as you drive, he says, just as smartphones brought computing and the internet into your pocket.
Google has been developing Android Auto as a platform for running smartphone apps on a car’s dashboard.
Apple has its CarPlay, which it has given an overhaul with iOS 13. Other automakers, like GM, have created APIs – application programming interfaces – to let drivers’ software access data from their cars.
Fuel the Love
Meanwhile, fast growing manufacturing and inward investment are speeding Vietnam toward Asian tiger status, consultancy firm Deloitte says.
With China growing wealthier, and focusing its economy higher up the value chain, this means Vietnam can now undercut Chinese manufacturing on price.
Also, Vietnam’s trade deal with the European Union, expected to enter into force soon, will eliminate all import tariffs on 99% of goods within a decade.
And give the new tiger access to the vast and wealthy European consumer market for exports like electronics, clothing, textiles, footwear, and furniture.
So Vietnam is getting many more cars on its streets.
The number of cars sold in the first five months of this year, 126,646, was up 22% from the same period last year.
And May’s car sales were up 30% from April, says the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers Association.
5G will help it, and other quickly developing countries, solve their traffic nightmares, says Dr Nguyen.
With Vietnam piloting 5G in 2019 ahead of a 2020 rollout, it is on par with neighbours such as Japan (which launched pre-commercial 5G services in September 2019, and officially launches 5G in 2020).
And close behind South Korea – which launched a pilot in December 2018, with a launch to a wider population April 2019.
The presence of the infrastucture will then allow automakers, startups, public bodies, and academics all to begin innovating ways to use the technology to improve transport.
“To build a house, you need a foundation. Only then can you top it up floor by floor,” says Dr Nguyen.
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