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5G New Radio: The technical background



Although 5G is being heavily marketed as a new technology, it’s neither particularly new nor a single technology. If mobile technology were a long-running TV series, 5G is a mid-season reboot, with new characters introduced alongside the old, new plot arcs complementing existing storylines, and a publicity drive that rather overstates the case. However, the possibilities for future development are much enhanced.

There have been three major new generations of mobile technology: 2G replaced analogue with digital; 3G began the switch to data-centric networking; and 4G completed that move. 5G has three main focuses — mobile networking, IoT, and very high-performance industrial control — of which mobile networking will be the most important for most people over the next few years, and which is best thought of as a continuation of 4G’s Long Term Evolution (LTE) under a new flag. Indeed, this stage of 5G is known as NSA (Non Stand Alone) as it will run alongside and interoperate with existing LTE networks. SA (Stand Alone) comes later.

Which is not to say that there aren’t significant innovations in 5G. While the 5G standardisation process covers core network and base station topology as well as other aspects of running high-performance networks, most of the factors that will affect our first experiences of 5G are affected by the subset of standards called New Radio, or 5G NR. Although work on NR was only started in the spring of 2016, it quickly rolled up the until-then very disparate research area and has already produced a number of nearly-there pre-standard references (see boxout below).

15, that difficult stage…

5G NR is developed by a group called 3GPP, the 3G Partnership Project, and the first version of the standard is called Release 15. 3GPP is so called because it was first formed to standardise 3G; it has considerable authority as an international group that brings together standards committees, regulators and industry bodies, and the legal issues over renaming it were too onerous when 4G came along. Release 15 is the 18th major standard, which fact is an excellent indicator of how organisations at this level actually work.

Release 15 has been produced at some speed. Starting in early 2016, a preliminary release in March 2018 was declared complete enough for manufacturers to start preliminary production, By the third quarter of 2018, both Ericsson and Huawei said they’d deployed more than 10,000 base stations on that release. A further standard update appeared in September, with a ‘feature freeze’ final pre-standard version of Release 15 promised for December. However, chips developed by Qualcomm to the September release were reported by industry site Light Reading to have proved incompatible with the March-release-based base stations, potentially requiring a hardware swap.

A three-month delay in finalising 3GPP’s Rel 15 standard (phase 1 of 5G) has resulted in a knock-on delay to Rel 16 (phase 2 of 5G).

Image: 3GPP

As a result the December freeze has been postponed to March 2019 with knock-on delays for Release 16, which is expected to bring the low-latency and high-speed aspects of 5G to prominence. The difficulties, according to 3GPP, were caused by a lack of communication between the technical subgroups working on the Radio Access Network side, those defining the overall system configuration, and those in charge of the core network configuration. Citing overwhelming workloads, the 3GPP said that there had been no time for a coordination meeting of all the subgroups prior to the September release.

The industry is sympathetic, with players like Samsung saying that they’re not changing their roll-out plans. Samsung is expected to show a 28GHz-enabled 5G handset at Mobile World Congress in February 2019.

5G NR includes major advances over LTE, each with specific benefits.


Most importantly, there’s masses of new airspace. 5G NR includes millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum (>24GHz) for the first time, with the first release of 5G including frequencies from below 1GHz up to 52.6GHz. The high-frequency spectrum (> 6GHz) comes in many different bands that vary by region, as well as many that are not yet fully available due to existing services that must be closed or moved.


Different spectrum bands are being made available for 5G NR around the world, on different timescales.

Image: Ericsson

The high-band allocations can support very high data rates and intensive frequency reuse, providing very dense, high-performance networking. They have very limited range for a given transmission power compared to lower bands and more stringent health and safety limits, and they are more susceptible to environmental issues like heavy rainfall and seasonal leaf growth. Conversely, the very small wavelength makes it much easier to build very high-performance antennas of small physical size.  

The high bands will be used to overlay existing LTE networks, providing much higher bandwidth on demand to reduce LTE (and eventually, 5G) mid- and low-band congestion, as well as fibre-speed home and office fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband. The 28GHz bands have seen the most attention, with the UK breakdown by region and operator being typical of how a territory already well-serviced with LTE will allocate resources:


Image: Ofcom

Ultra-lean design

Ultra-lean design is a key 5G NR design principle, reducing energy consumption and interference. LTE relies on a number of always-on signals transmitted by base stations — beacons that show which cells are available, reference channels that terminals and base stations use to configure data links, command channels for tracking mobility and so on. In LTE, these signals don’t take up a significant percentage of the overall channel usage, but 5G will have a much denser network with more cells, which will on average have quite a low actual usage rate. The always-on signals will thus take a greater percentage of power, and will interfere more with adjacent cells, leading to lower throughput.

Wherever possible 5G reduces or switches off such signals until they’re actually needed. The reference signal, for example, is only transmitted once data transfer is under way. This means the handset and base station have to optimise the signal on the fly, but the overall benefit to throughput for the network is notable.

Ultra-lean design is also a key component of forward compatibility, a specific requirement in 5G NR for curiously unspecific ends. The basic rule is to leave as much room as possible in implementations to allow future developments. In practice, this means minimising non-data carrying transmissions (reducing overall interference and spectrum use), having a high degree of frequency and time-domain flexibility in 5G designs, and providing paths for reconfiguration in the future both in the hardware and in the specification itself.

This latter decision came about through experience with LTE, which encodes a number of design decisions in the specification such as when and where error-correction happens: if a new service finds these decisions inefficient or even disabling, then there’s nothing that can be done. A reconfigurable standard can improve on old decisions. Also, new basic technologies such as software-defined radio (SDR) have moved much radio engineering from hardware into software, meaning that changing operating characteristics in ways that once took a complete hardware revision can now be pushed out as a software update. 5G is the first generation to fully embrace this.

Modulation and framing

5G modulation and framing is also an increment from existing ideas, but a significant one. Like LTE (and recent wi-fi standards, and just about every modern digital wireless system), 5G NR uses ODFM as its underlying modulation scheme. ODFM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) combines multiple subchannels within a channel, and is known to be both robust against interference and efficient in its use of frequencies. It’s also highly flexible, as different numbers of subcarriers can be added to increase a channel capacity, or numbers reduced to provide much lower-power, lower-bandwidth options.

5G NR can choose subcarrier spacing from 15kHz to 240kHz, with a maximum 3300 subcarriers in simultaneous use on one channel. However, channels can be no more than 400MHz wide. The standard is frequency agnostic, meaning any subcarrier configuration can be used on any band. In practice, the mid- and low-band frequencies below 6GHz have markedly different channel and noise characteristics, as well as different maximum bandwidths, to the high-band allocations, so will use 15 to 60kHz channel spacing, while high-band will use 60 to 120kHz. There are currently no 5G band allocations between 6GHz and 24.25GHz, but the standard allows for optimal ODFM configuration to match any future expansion into this spectrum.


5G ODFM usage models, channel bandwidths and subcarrier spacing.

Image: Qualcomm

Not all devices on 5G NR have to support all bandwidths, which is a change from LTE. Furthermore, 5G NR supports adaptive bandwidth, letting devices move to a low-bandwidth, low-power configuration when appropriate, and gearing up to higher bandwidths only when necessary. This creates the opportunity for very low average power devices that can still deliver high performance — IoT networks, for example, which normally only need small amounts of data for telemetry, but nevertheless need to be able to update their firmware for security and feature patches. The 5G NR specification refers to these different configurations as ‘bandwidth parts’, and in theory a device can support multiple bandwidth parts simultaneously on the same channel, although the first 5G NR release limits devices to one bandwidth part at a time.

Within a subchannel, data is divided up into frames of ten milliseconds each, further subdivided into ten 1ms subframes. Those subframes are themselves divided into slots of 14 OFDM symbols apiece. Thus, wider bandwidth subchannels have more OFDM symbols per second and each slot thus gets shorter, but the basic frame structure stays the same. At the lowest subcarrier spacing, 15kHz, the frames are identical to LTE, simplifying compatibility.

LTE and similar systems allocate bandwidth to different devices by slot, but 5G NR has a mechanism for a transmission to start within a slot, effectively creating what are called ‘mini-slots’. This is especially useful for the high bands, which can have very large OFDM symbols and thus the ability to use just a few to carry a relatively short message improves both channel reuse and latency. Another potential advantage is if, or when, 5G expands to unlicensed spectrum, which normally comes with a ‘listen before use’ rule to prevent interference. If a channel appears quiet, the ability to start a transmission without having to wait for a slot boundary reduces the chance of another device grabbing the channel.

Other low-latency adaptations in 5G NR are tight requirements for data transmissions to start after a channel is granted, and restrictions on processing delay for data streams. This is achieved in the higher network layers by changing header structures so that processing can begin without the full packet information being known, and at the physical layer by having the radio receive essential information from reference and downlink control signals instead of deriving it from the symbol stream.


5G NR has a much more advanced concept of beamforming than LTE. Beamforming is the manipulation of the signals fed to and received from complex antennas to create beams in space that focus power in a particular direction. LTE could do this for data; 5G NR extends this to control channels too, while increasing the precision and adaptability overall for operation under different conditions. At the high bands, beamforming will mostly be used to increase range by energy focus, while at the mid and low bands below 6GHz, where attenuation is less of a problem, beamforming will be a key part of MIMO, the multiple-in multiple-out spatial channel technique that increases bandwidth for multiple devices in the same area. Although not part of the first release, 5G NR will support distributed-MIMO, where a user can receive different parts of the same data stream from multiple sites.


With FD-MIMO, the antenna system can form beams in both horizontal and vertical directions, giving coverage in 3D spaces.


This touches on the other major areas of 5G beyond the radio: how base stations communicate with each other and with the core network, how the operators manage the whole system for reliability and profit, and what shapes the new network uses built on the back of these technologies will take. Don’t expect the full picture to become clear for three to five years: 5G in 2019 will be as much about groundwork as immediate results.


What happens when driverless car meets delivery robot at an intersection?
The latest 5G technology is being used in Estonia to find answers to tricky situations for self-driving vehicles.

Seoul and SK Telecom to use 5G to prevent jaywalking
Seoul and SK Telecom’s planned intelligent transportation systems will use 5G sensors to warn cars of jaywalkers and pave the way for ambulances, they said.

How 5G can unlock IoT’s potential
The Internet of Things will involve an astounding amount of data—and the next generation of wireless communications could play a key role.  

NTT and NEC use 5G to stream 8K footage of a steam locomotive to its passengers
Good news for Japanese steampunks that have a 5G handset from the future.

Ericsson and Deutsche Telekom hit 40Gbps wireless backhaul speeds
Ericsson says the trial proves microwave backhaul can be used in a 5G era to attain speeds of 40Gbps.

5G market predictions for 2019 (TechRepublic)
Find out how fast experts anticipate 5G rolling out next year, as well as what to expect and where to find it. 

5G technology: A business leader’s guide (Tech Pro Research)
It’s still early days for 5G services, but as they’re being trialed and deployed, they’re on track to have a far-reaching impact for both consumers and businesses.  

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The green future of big rigs is almost here



Anyone who has driven the highways in their part of the country has seen semi-trucks out delivering goods and other items. The semi-trucks you see on the roads today are powered by massive diesel engines able to run for a million miles or more. With the federal mandates attempting to push people from traditional combustion-engine vehicles to EVs, the same pressure is being felt by manufacturers of large heavy-duty trucks and large fleet owners. Several of the largest manufacturers in the semi-truck market are hard at work on electric vehicles and other zero missions technologies for the future, and here are some of their trucks.

Tesla Semi

When it comes to electric cars for the masses, Tesla is the undisputed leader of the industry at this time. While Tesla is mostly known for its fully electric cars and SUVs, it’s also working on the Tesla Semi, a fully electric semi-truck for hauling loads. While this truck has been delayed multiple times, it will eventually come to market, and it promises an electric driving range of 300 or 500 miles depending on the version chosen. Tesla has promised that the vehicle will consume less than 2 kWh of electricity per mile driven.

The Tesla Semi has an expected base price of $150,000 for the version with 300 miles of driving range and an expected base price of $180,000 for the 500-mile range version. While those prices sound very high, they are right in the normal range of diesel-powered semi MSRPs today. A brand-new diesel-powered semi from any manufacturer will be over $150,000, with some specialized trucks costing more than twice that.

Freighliner eCascadia

When it comes to popular trucks operated by large fleet owners and owner-operators, one of the most popular trucks out there is the Freightliner Cascadia. Freightliner has been working on a fully electric version of the Cascadia, known fittingly as the eCascadia. Freightliner’s eCascadia is a Class 8 big rig with between 360 and 500 horsepower depending on the version chosen. It can carry a maximum gross cargo weight of 82,000 pounds and has an electric driving range of 250 miles.

Usable energy capacity is up to 475 kWh, and perhaps most importantly, the eCascadia can charge to 80 percent capacity in 90 minutes. A typical semi-truck being used for local or over-the-road applications can be driven by a single driver for up to 11 hours and can travel hundreds of miles during that time. Fast recharging is critical to the success of electric big rigs. Freightliner doesn’t mention pricing on the eCascadia, but an average cost for a normal Cascadia today is around $165,000.

International NEXT eMobility Solutions

Another manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks for a variety of purposes is International. International hasn’t given a specific name for its electric trucks, but they all fall under its NEXT eMobility Solutions umbrella. What we know about International’s project is that its electric vehicle will have a 645 horsepower peak and 402 horsepower continuous. Peak torque will be 2102 foot-pounds with continuous torque at 1549 foot-pounds.

International offers three different battery capacity options, including eMV Base with 107 kWh, eMV Mid with 214 kWh, and eMV Max with 321 kWh. The company does point out that the eMV Max version is only applicable for certain chassis specifications. Much about International’s electric offerings is a mystery at this point.


Peterbilt is one of the most popular manufacturers of semi-trucks and other heavy-duty and medium-duty trucks around. Peterbilt has multiple fully electric trucks for different uses coming, including the 220EV design for pickup and delivery, regional haul, and food and beverage applications. This is a small straight truck which means the cargo area is attached to the same frame as the tractor in the front. It offers a range of up to 200 miles.

Peterbilt’s electric semi-truck is the 579EV, which uses a day cab configuration. For those who might not know, a day cab is a big rig that doesn’t have a sleeper in the back typically used for local operations where the driver doesn’t sleep in the truck. Peterbilt says the 579EV is designed for short-haul and drayage applications.

The last of the electric trucks that Peterbilt is making is the Model 520EV designed for commercial and residential trash pickup. Peterbilt doesn’t offer any specifications on its electric big rigs at this time, so we don’t know battery capacity or driving range. It’s also worth noting that Peterbilt trucks tend to be some of the most expensive you can buy, typically costing more than other brands such as Freightliner.


Another of the very popular manufacturers of semi-trucks is Kenworth. Kenworth has a semi called the T680E, a fully electric Class 8 big rig. Kenworth says this model has an estimated operating range of 150 miles depending on the application. The T680E is compatible with a CCS1 DC fast charger offering a maximum charge rate of 120 kWh and an estimated 3.3-hour charging time.

Kenworth’s electric semi has 536 continuous horsepower and 670 horsepower. It produces 1623 pound-foot of torque, giving it plenty of towing power. Both Kenworth and Peterbilt are owned by the same PACCAR parent company, so specifications for the Peterbilt electric truck could be similar. Pricing for the T680E is unannounced, but much like Peterbilt, Kenworth trucks tend to cost more than competitive offerings from Freightliner and others.

Nikola Two and Tre

One of the more interesting zero-emissions options out there when it comes to semi-trucks comes from Nikola. Nikola has two zero-emissions models, including the Nikola Two and Nikola Tre. The Two is very different from the other zero emissions offerings because it uses a hydrogen fuel cell rather than relying on battery packs alone. The Nikola Tre is a battery-electric vehicle.

When looking at the hydrogen fuel cell Two, it is emissions-free, relying on hydrogen to produce electricity to operate the vehicle. Not long ago, Nikola confirmed that it had signed a hydrogen infrastructure agreement with TC Energy that will see the two firms roll out hydrogen fueling infrastructure along major trucking routes around the country.

The major benefit to hydrogen fuel cells for powering semis is that they can run near continuously, just as a traditional diesel-powered vehicle does. The major hurdle to overcome for any hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle is the hydrogen infrastructure.

The Nikola Two has a driving range of up to 900 miles and can refuel completely in 20 minutes. Its driving range and fueling time are very similar to current diesel-powered big rigs. The truck offers 645 continuous horsepower, and Nikola expects the Two to be available in 2024.

The Nikola Tre BEV has a driving range of up to 350 miles per charge thanks to its 753 kWh battery pack. It can be recharged from 10-percent to 80-percent in 120 minutes utilizing a 240kW charger. The electric vehicle has 645 continuous horsepower.

Can EV or Fuel Cell Semis Replace All Diesel Semis?

Now that we’ve talked about some of the zero-emissions semi-trucks that will be available from various manufacturers, it’s worth taking some time to talk about how practical these trucks will be in all aspects of commercial trucking. Note that all of these electric and fuel-cell-powered semi-trucks are intended for local and short-haul trucking.

While local and short-haul trucking constitutes a large portion of the commercial trucking industry, the technology isn’t there today to allow the zero-emissions big rigs to take over the industry completely. The problem for trucking companies and drivers is downtime for charging. Trucking companies and drivers don’t make money if their truck isn’t rolling.

In some applications, diesel-powered semi-trucks are cruising the roads around the US for up to 22 hours at a time. In many time-sensitive applications, trucking companies run team drivers. Each driver can spend 11 hours behind the wheel, and with a team of two, the truck can run for 22 hours at a time. Ideally, as a semi pulls into a hub, they’re unloading the trailer they’ve been towing and immediately pick up another load and head back out on the road. Having a long recharge time and limited driving range simply won’t work for long-haul trucking.

Assuming Nikola can roll out a hydrogen fueling infrastructure that could serve all major trucking routes, its technology seems to have the best chance of replacing traditional diesel-powered trucks. The driving range and refueling time are close enough to modern diesel trucks that hydrogen fuel cell semis could replace diesel trucks with no change to how truckers and trucking companies operate. Of course, a breakthrough in battery capacity or charging speed could eliminate the downsides of electric rigs.

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Like to shift gears? Here are some vehicles you can still get with a manual transmission



Years back, it was easy to find vehicles with manual transmissions. Most models had a budget-friendly manual-transmission option that many people chose for fuel economy. In modern times, automatic transmissions are more fuel-efficient, and people who know how to drive a manual and choose that type of transmission are declining.

You might think that only sports cars aimed at enthusiasts would come with manual transmissions today, and while they do, other non-enthusiast rides still allow you to row your own gears. For anyone looking for a vehicle, be it a car or SUV with a manual transmission, this list runs down some of the coolest rides available today with three pedals. This list is in no particular order.


BMW is still making sports cars with three pedals, and among the most popular of its builds are the M3 and M4. Both of these rides can be had with a manual or automatic, but they’re among the more pricey options on the list. A basic BMW M3 Sedan starts at $69,900 and quickly goes up from there, depending on options. Anyone looking for the M3 Competition xDrive version will start at $76,900.

BMW’s M4 Coupe starts at $71,800 and goes all the way up to $78,800 for the Competition xDrive. These rides offer between 473 horsepower and 503 horsepower, depending on the configuration, with 0 to 60 MPH times ranging from 4.1 seconds to 3.8 seconds. Unfortunately for the current model year, BMW has a rather controversially styled front end with massive grill openings that some fans dislike.

Nissan Versa S

Anyone who remembers the Nissan Versa from years past probably remembers a cheap car that offered good fuel economy with rather unattractive styling. That all changed in 2020 when Nissan completely redesigned the Versa, turning it into a very attractive car that is still quite affordable with excellent fuel economy.

While most versions of the Versa come with an Xtronic CVT transmission, the basic Versa S can be had with a five-speed manual. It’s one of the most affordable vehicles in the country, starting at $14,980. For the price, not only do you get to row your own gears, but you also get automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, high beam assist, and rear automatic braking. You could buy five Nissan Versa S cars for the price of one BMW M4.

Mazda3 Premium

Mazda is a more premium brand today, even though you don’t see many of them on the highway. The 2021 Mazda3 Premium hatchback starts at $28,000 and can be had in front-wheel-drive with a 6-speed manual transmission.

Interestingly, the all-wheel-drive version is only available with the automatic, and all other trim levels only come in automatic. Starting at $28,000, it’s a more expensive but still affordable car offering 186 horsepower and 186 pound-foot of torque. As we mentioned before, the manual transmission gives up fuel economy, with the all-wheel-drive automatic offering more miles per gallon.

In the city, the manual version gets 24 MPG compared to the automatic all-wheel-drive getting 25 MPG. The automatic front-wheel-drive gets 26 MPG in the city. Fuel economy between the transmission options is close, and odds are the average driver wouldn’t notice a difference between the manual and the automatic.

Jeep Wrangler

Anyone looking for an SUV with off-road chops will be familiar with the Jeep Wrangler. Most Wrangler trims are available with a six-speed manual transmission. Off-road enthusiasts often choose the manual transmission because they like the control it gives them on the trails.

The Wrangler certainly isn’t an inexpensive SUV, but all of them come with four-wheel drive and are capable of hitting the trails right off the showroom floor. Jeep offers the Wrangler in two-door or four-door versions. The most affordable is the Wrangler Sport, with the two-door starting at $29,070 and the four-door starting at $32,570.

The most expensive Wrangler is the Rubicon 392, featuring a big V-8 engine under the hood starting at $74,640, but it’s only available with the eight-speed automatic. However, you can get the normal Rubicon with a Manual transmission starting at $43,265 for the four-door version.

Ford Bronco

A new and very popular competitor to the Jeep Wrangler is the Ford Bronco. Like the Wrangler, the Bronco can be had with a manual transmission. The Base Ford Bronco starts at $29,300, including standard 4 x 4 and 7-speed manual transmission in the two-door model.

That manual transmission is standard on the Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, and Badlands trim levels. If you step up to the four-door version, it starts at $33,450, and the manual is available in the same trim levels as the two-door. Unfortunately, the Ford Bronco has proven so popular that it is next to impossible to get one and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Those who do find one at a Ford dealership are likely to pay massive markups.

Ford Mustang

We expect a manual transmission to turn up in a muscle car or sports car, and Ford doesn’t disappoint. The Ford Mustang has always been available with a manual transmission, and the current generation offers a six-speed manual.

The manual transmission can be had in the V8-powered GT or the EcoBoost-powered version. The only Mustang that doesn’t offer a manual transmission is the high-end Shelby GT500 and the Mach-E GT (which enthusiasts hardly count as a Mustang). The EcoBoost Fastback starts at $27,205, while the cheapest GT fastback starts at $36,285, both featuring the six-speed manual transmission. The Mustang Mach 1 starts at $53,400 with the standard six-speed manual transmission.

Chevy Spark

Those looking for a very inexpensive commuter car with a manual transmission won’t find anything cheaper than the 2022 Chevrolet Spark. The LS Manual features a 1.4-liter four-cylinder Eco-Tech engine backed with a five-speed manual transmission. The car starts at $14,595.

Chevy also offers a manual option for the 1LT version starting from $16,495, and the Activ manual version starts at $17,595. The 2LT with a manual starts at $17,995. The Spark is one of the cheapest new cars in the country, and its price is often less than a used vehicle. However, its diminutive size and styling aren’t for everyone.

Subaru WRX

Subaru offers manual transmissions in several of its vehicles, including some of its crossovers. One of the most popular manual transmission models Subaru makes is the iconic WRX. The base model 2021 WRX with a six-speed manual starts at $28,420.

The hotter WRX STI starts at $37,245. However, the six-speed manual used in STI models is a close-ratio unit. Aside from the STI version, Subaru does offer CVT automatics as well. One caveat with Subaru is if you choose a manual transmission, you can’t get its EyeSight safety system.

Wrap Up

This list runs down some of the vehicles available in 2021 with manual transmissions. This is certainly not an all-inclusive list, with several other manual transmission cars, SUVs, and trucks available. For some people, a manual transmission is the only way to go, while for others, it’s simply a way to get the vehicle’s purchase price down as low as possible.

Whatever the reason you’re looking for a vehicle with a manual transmission, we hope people buy them. If the manual transmission option isn’t popular enough, we could see them disappear in many models and we’d hate to see that happen.

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Volvo wants to make the whole windshield a smart AR display



Over the last several years, there has been a significant push in the automotive industry to prevent distractions that force drivers to look away from the road to operate their vehicle’s systems. This drive has ushered in a number of features in modern cars, such as voice control systems for infotainment and other car functions. Increasingly common are head-up displays, that project information like speed and other data in an area of the windshield that the driver can see, without taking their eyes off what’s directly ahead.

Volvo Cars has a long history of debuting new safety technology for vehicles that often trickles down to other automakers over time. The company has announced that it has invested in an optical imaging startup company called Spectralics. Volvo says the company is working on a “promising technology” that the company admits is at an early stage of development. However, the new technology could make vehicles much safer and help to improve the in-car experience for drivers.

Spectralics is working on a thin optics film that can be applied to see-through surfaces of all shapes and sizes, such as windshields and windows in of a car. The film is a multi-layer thin combiner (MLTC) that allows imagery overlay on windows or the windshield. Essentially, it turns the entire windshield surface into a transparent head-up display with significantly more capability than any HUD available in vehicles today.

As Spectralics explains it, when its MLTC is used on a car’s windshield, it creates an extra-wide field of view for the digital overlay, in the process providing drivers a sense of distance with virtual objects superimposed on the real-world environment. The technology could include advanced filters for in-cabin sensing, blind-proof front-looking cameras, and digital holographic projections. Volvo only offered a single image with the announcement that it invested in Spectralics, though it’s enough to get us excited about what could potentially come to future models should the investment pay off.

It shows a windshield able to highlight road markings, signs, and any potential obstacles in the road. The overlay, for example, highlights a moose potentially in the path of the vehicle on the left-hand side, and shows speed and other vehicle data along the bottom of the windshield. The promise of blind-proof cameras seemingly indicates the film would be able to take information from cameras able to see in the dark or fog, and overlay their imagery on the windshield.

It’s easy to understand how this capability could benefit drivers, particularly in extremely dark areas or in dense fog. Driving in fog is one of the most hazardous conditions drivers face as visibility can be limited severely. Another big benefit of providing imagery from cameras would be in whiteout situations during intense snowstorms. For those who have never driven in extremely heavy snow, it’s often impossible to see very far in front of the vehicle. Stopping could mean being stranded in the mountains without assistance, not to mention potentially being rear-ended by other drivers on the road.

Volvo’s investment was made to the Volvo Cars Tech Fund. The Head of the fund, Lee Ma, said the investment results from the company’s successful collaboration with MobilityXlab and DRIVE; Ma says that the fund believes Spectralics’ technology could set the standard for next-generation displays and cameras. As interesting as the technology is, some significant questions are unanswered at this time.

One of the biggest is how expensive the technology will be, and how easily – if at all – it can be transferred to another windshield during a replacement. That’s a burning question for those who live in cold-weather states, where roads tend to deteriorate rapidly. Anyone living in a cold-weather state like Colorado, for instance, knows that the thawing and freezing action of water seeping into cracks in the road tends to cause the roadway to break down in relatively short order.

Couple that freeze and thaw cycle with intense traffic, and lots of small pebbles and gravel are constantly being generated. They’re routinely thrown into the air at high speed by vehicles traveling over them, meaning an extremely high likelihood of a broken windshield. Frequently extreme differences in temperatures at night and during the day, meanwhile, also mean that what starts out as a small chip that could be easily repaired in the morning, can sometimes be a crack running across the entire windshield by the afternoon.

How much this type of technology would increase the price of the windshield will be a barrier to the technology. Many automotive insurers won’t write traditional glass breakage coverage in cold-weather states, because broken windshields are so common. USAA, for example, won’t write a no-deductible glass breakage plan as you can get in warmer states like Texas. Instead, it covers a broken windshield on your comprehensive coverage, meaning you have to pay that comprehensive deductible if you want the windshield replaced.

Having recently replaced the windshield on a 2020 Jeep Renegade, the replacement price for a non-factory windshield was around $300. It’s also worth noting that you can be ticketed in some states if you’re driving a vehicle with a crack that runs the driver’s field of view. What that would mean is if, instead of a few hundred dollars, the Spectralics technology pushes the cost of the windshield into the thousands, it could be quite a burden to replace a windshield in a vehicle equipped with technology.

Perhaps the film attaches to a windshield in a way that can be simply removed and applied to the new window, but that is unclear. Another potential workaround for the issue of cracked windshields featuring this type of technology would be to use stronger glass. The glass covering the LCD for smartphones is often Gorilla Glass from Corning, and indeed we’ve seen some vehicles made available from the factory with windshields made of Gorilla Glass that is far more robust than traditional windshield glass. Again, of course, the risk we run with utilizing stronger glass for the windshield is an additional cost. The Spectralics technology is exciting and could make vehicles safer, but we can’t help but wonder what impact it might have on the long-term price of the car.

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