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Autonomous Driving with 5G

Professor Dr Wolfgang Echelmeyer and his team develop a concept for better and cheaper public transport thanks to 5G

District Administrator Thomas Reumann (left) receives the “5G for public mobility“ from Professor Dr Wolfgang Echelmeyer. (picture: District of Reutlingen)

This is what the shuttle buses in the pilot projects for a 5G-controlled, autonomous public transport system could look like. The vehicles are manufactured by ZF subsidiary 2getthere. (Picture: ZF Friedrichshafen AG)

How can local public transport (ÖPNV) become better and cheaper, especially in rural areas, with the help of the new 5G mobile radio standard? To answer this question is the goal of a concept commissioned by the districts of Reutlingen (lead management), Sigmaringen and Zollernalbkreis as well as the city of Reutlingen. The concept was developed over the past seven months at the Teaching and Research Centre for Value Creation and Logistics at Reutlingen University. Now ESB Professor Wolfgang Echelmeyer has handed it over to Thomas Reumann, District Administrator of the district of Reutlingen.

“Integrated networked transport systems and innovative mobility concepts are necessary to make public transport fit for the future”, said Reumann upon receiving the concept funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI). “The new 5G mobility communications standard has the potential to enable autonomous driving and thus bring significant improvements in mobility, especially for the people living in rural areas.”

5G-technology enables the safe operation of autonomous buses

“The 5G mobile radio standard is a key technology when it comes to significantly reducing the costs of public transport, especially in rural areas, while at the same time increasing its attractiveness”, says Professor Dr Wolfgang Echelmeyer. The engineer is Professor for Material Flow/Logistics at ESB Business School in Reutlingen and has been developing the concept with his team over the past seven months.  The central finding is that 5G technology enables the safe operation of autonomous buses. The legal framework conditions do not yet allow fully autonomous transport systems. Therefore, in corresponding tests, there is always a driver in the vehicle who can immediately intervene if necessary. Echelmeyer believes, however, that thanks to 5G technology buses can also operate without a driver. The buses are usually computer-controlled and monitored by a person who is not in the bus but in a control centre where they are responsible for several buses.  This so-called operator or dispatcher can stop the vehicle at any time and enter alternative routes. “If permitted by law, they can even drive the vehicles directly.” This is because the speed and volume of data in 5G mobile radio technology is so great that secure data and image transmission is possible at all times without any noticeable delay and thus control in real time.

At the same time 5G local public transport brings high-performance Internet to the countryside

According to Echelmeyer, 5G use for local public transport has an additional effect of enormous social significance. “Local public transport will thus become the anchor user of 5G in rural areas. This means that it will also be worthwhile for mobile radio providers to deliver the corresponding 5G infrastructure in rural areas. And this will finally give companies and individuals access to an efficient Internet that is still not available in many areas.”   

Once the project is ready to be implemented, three different phases are planned. In the first project phase, technical tests are to be carried out at the RT Unlimited Industry and Business Park. On the 12-hectare site in the heart of the city of Reutlingen, a 5G infrastructure for industrial research will be set up, independent of the project now being presented. This can be used on site to test the radio remote control of buses via a control station.

Autonomous shuttle buses bring visitors to Metzingen Outletcity  

In the second phase of the project, the outlet city in Metzingen will be connected by shuttle buses to the carparks outside the city and to Metzingen’s train station.  “Here we have our guests and customers in mind, who come to Metzingen by car or by train to go shopping, as well as employees at Outletcity Metzingen and residents, who can actively use this shuttle connection”, says Reinhard Keuerleber, responsible for the project at Holy AG.

Based on this experience, feasibility studies for further shuttle services are envisaged in a third project phase. One between the castle carpark and Hohenzollern Castle, a second one in Mehrstetten on the Swabian Alb where a new train stop is to be connected to the village centre, and a third and fourth one in Balingen and Bad Urach where the service is to be used, among other things, for the transportation of visitors to the State Garden Shows planned for 2023 and 2027.

“Local interest as well as on the part of industry is huge”, says Echelmeyer. ZF Friedrichshafen, DB Regio Bus, comcross GmbH & Co. KG (infrastructure pioneer for 5G) and Holy AG (property manager of Outletcity Metzingen) and others have promised to help realise the project.  

In the next step, the finished concept will be submitted to the Federal Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure (BMVI) in its 5G innovation programme. In this competition, the BMVI is offering the successful concepts funding of up to four million euros. “If we are awarded the contract, implementation of the concept could start in spring 2021“, anticipates District Administrator Thomas Reumann. So far, the project has been designed to last a total of three years.