Christopher Bartley

How will 5G and autonomous driving impact real estate?

Childhood ambitions to emulate David Hasselhoff’s character in Knight Rider might soon be achievable or, at least, certain aspects of it, writes Christopher Bartley. KITT might be found on every driveway as the use of autonomous vehicles is set to become ubiquitous in tomorrow’s world.

Automated driving relies on a fully connected and intelligent road transport system. Communication is a key aspect of such a system and, for obvious reasons, the communication must occur wirelessly (for the alternative, think Scalextric multiplied by several million).

5G is one possible technology that could be used as the foundation of a self-driving road transportation network. It is quick, enabling information transfer rates between 2.1 and 20 gigabits per second and latency of just 1 millisecond or lower. Clearly that is a big selling point when safety is a priority and vehicles must recognise hazards in a fraction of a second.

With increased bandwidth, the sheer volume of data that can be transferred over a short time also makes 5G an attractive option.  Cars will have a variety of sensors communicating large volumes of data across the wireless transport system.

Another possible selling point for 5G is known as network slicing.  The wireless frequencies within which 5G operates can be divided into levels or slices, which means that automated driving can be given its own level which should prevent interference or network shortages.

So far, so good.

What are the challenges?

If 5G is used as the main technology for autonomous driving, it will be dependent on a comprehensive and widespread 5G network.  What happens if a car goes out of coverage? Will it just stop?

This could create a chicken and egg scenario where car manufacturers are unwilling to invest in installing 5G technology into cars without a widespread network in place in key markets. Equally, telecoms operators may not be incentivised sufficiently to invest in building those networks without the regulatory support and commercial guarantees needed to ensure that investment will pay off.

That obstacle is surmountable, however, and several telecoms operators are partnering with automotive companies to bridge the gap. For example, Huawei is aiming for self-driving cars by 2025 and has partnered with several key stakeholders in China’s automotive industry to explore the use of emerging technologies in the automotive sector. Vodafone is also involved in several vehicle projects across the UK and recently announced a partnership with Midlands Future Mobility to provide 5G connectivity along 300 miles of road in the West Midlands as part of the consortium’s autonomous vehicles trial.

Another challenge with 5G and autonomous driving relates to the frequency of 5G waves. 5G technology relies on short wavelengths within the radio spectrum. Such waves are not very good at passing through objects such as buildings.

That could be an issue even if the future of autonomous vehicles relies predominantly on vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V).  Although the vehicles in a V2V network communicate only with one another, they would still rely on a comprehensive cellular network or other means of communication.

That challenge is even more acute for vehicle-to-everything communication (V2X), which is necessary to realise truly automated driving.  V2X would enable vehicles to communicate with other cars but also street furniture, buildings, pedestrians and animals.  Such a system is preferable from a safety perspective, but it relies on a comprehensive network in place.  5G is the apparent frontrunner in that regard.

Potential consequences for the built landscape

In view of the limited ability for 5G to pass through buildings because of its short wavelength, a greater number of antennas, receivers, sensors and other apparatus might be needed. The road network can be utilised primarily. Apparatus could be placed on top of lampposts, bus shelters and traffic lights (if, indeed, traffic lights are even needed for truly autonomous driving) and a £4m competition has been launched by the government to see how existing street furniture can be used.

It might still be necessary, however, for telecoms apparatus to be placed on privately owned land and buildings. The Electronic Communications Code gives registered network operators certain rights to install and maintain electronic communication apparatus in, over and under land.

Where those rights are exercised, the rights benefit from a form of security of tenure which can make it difficult for the landowner to remove the apparatus following the expiry or other termination of the agreement.

The Code gives a very wide definition to “apparatus” and it will include something as small as a sensor placed on the corner of a building.  If that sensor is owned by a telecoms operator as part of its electronic communications network, then it will benefit from security of tenure.

The distribution of telecommunications apparatus as part of a wireless network could, therefore, result in further legal headaches for landowners. Consideration/rent payable for the telecoms equipment is lower under the Code while the security of tenure makes it difficult to remove the apparatus or, at least, lengthens the timescales for possession.

Is there a solution?

One option is legislative reform to allow operators and landowners to “opt out” of certain aspects of the Code, including security of tenure. Alternatively, certain exceptions can be made where apparatus is used within the context of autonomous driving. For example, expedited timescales for removing apparatus to enable redevelopment.

The challenge is that the success of autonomous driving will be synonymous with safety and availability in terms of infrastructure. The government will be reluctant, therefore, to enable opt outs particularly if such a step would allow a landowner to remove apparatus which forms part of an autonomous driving network without a suitable replacement.

The government has recently concluded a consultation on possible changes to the Code. The guidance issued from the government made clear, however, that the roll-out of high quality wireless technology is a key objective. It seems unlikely, therefore, that changes to the Code will secure more flexibility for landowners.

Conclusion

This is horizon spotting, of course.  Technologies are emerging and evolving, and the legal framework is also dynamic. At this stage, these are issues to keep in mind as autonomous driving gains traction. Key stakeholders should be consulted on how the built landscape should look together with the accompanying legal and regulatory framework, and it is important that the views of landowners are included. We will keep our scanners peeled.

Find out more about the future of Mobility & Sustainability and the real estate sector with our interactive ‘Mapping the FutuRE’

Mills & Reeve LLP has a specialist telecoms practice acting for landowners across England and Wales.  For further information please visit our Telecoms page here.

Christopher Bartley is principal associate at Mills & Reeve

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