Spark's latest 5G showcase involved a self-driving electric vehicle from Kiwi company Ohmio.

It looked very gee-whiz Jetsons, with Ohmio's usual golf cart-ish design jazzed up with some angular panels and neon lighting.

Spark's demo of a driver-less Ohmio vehicle controlled via 5G at Wynyard Quarter. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Spark's demo of a driver-less Ohmio vehicle controlled via 5G at Wynyard Quarter. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

And this morning, the Herald had a lot of fun riding a driverless Ohmio around coned-off streets at Auckland's Wynyard Quarter, where Spark maintains a small test 5G cellular network, using Huawei, Cisco and Ericsson gear (close industry watchers will find it interesting that Huawei got no name-check today).

The Ohmio was summoned via a tablet, and drove itself to the pickup point before carrying its passengers on a pre-programmed route.

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At one point there was drama, as Ohmio's LIDAR sensor (an invisible, pulsed laser beam that plays a similar role to radar) picked up a knocked-out-of-place road cone and brought the vehicle to an emergency stop - which was not too traumatic as the Ohmio was only travelling at 7km (its arbitrary speed limit for today as AT staff looked on; it can pull 25km ordinarily).

But although Ohmio is a promising company (more on that shortly), and you can make a case for driverless vehicles benefitting from 5G, which has none of the lag in two-way communication of today's 4G mobile networks, it will be years before driverless cars are a common sight on our streets.

Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Photo / Jason Oxenham.

It's still not clear why Spark MD Simon Moutter is pressing so hard for his company to launch its first 5G service by July 1 next year - a line-in-the-sand date he has now pushed at several events as he's lobbied the Government to get a wriggle on and resolve the Treaty and technical issues that are holding up a 5G spectrum auction.

Moutter's impatience is a stark contrast to new Vodafone boss Jason Paris, who says that while 5G will be great, the industry shouldn't invest ahead of demand. And to 2degrees CEO Stewart Sherriff, who has warned against drinking the 5G "Kool-Aid".

Vodafone (which has the distraction of a restructure and pending IPO) and 2degrees (which does not have as deeper pockets as its rivals) have their own reasons for tempering timeline expectations.

Still, their broader arguments hold water. So why is Spark in such a rush?

Spark network evolution lead Colin Brown with Ohmio R&D head Dr Mahmood Hikmet. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Spark network evolution lead Colin Brown with Ohmio R&D head Dr Mahmood Hikmet. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

This morning, a spokeswoman said the July 1, 2020 target would allow Spark to get 5G up and running for the America's Cup. She also reiterated her MD's point that Australia's 5G auction was done and dusted last year. Moutter sees NZ falling behind, economically, if our mobile network technology falls behind.

Left unspoken is what could be Moutter's real motivation: his company's successful push into fixed-wireless, which allows it to pocket tens of millions that would otherwise go to network wholesaler Chorus. Fixed wireless has hit its natural limit with 4G, but could well get more life - and frills like unlimited mobile data into homes - with 5G.

Ohmio finalises China JV

Ohmio already has two of its vehicles operating at Christchurch Airport.

Today, its R&D head, Dr Mahmood Hikmet, said a joint manufacturing deal with a Chinese partner, first publicised last year, was finally all signed last week.

The JV, with a local government agency tied to the city of Heshan, will help Ohmio fill a giant order from South Korean company Southwest Coast Enterprise City Development (SolaSeaDo) for 150 autonomous shuttles - some of which will carry up to 22 people standing, and some of which will ferry goods or waste around a proposed giant apartment complex.

Hikmet says the SolaSeaDo order, first announced last April, is a major part of Ohmio's future, but he says necessary parliamentary approval and other factors mean it will be some time before it is fulfilled.

Ohmio self-driving buses being demo'd in Christchurch last year. Photo / File.
Ohmio self-driving buses being demo'd in Christchurch last year. Photo / File.

Ohmio was founded as a subsidiary of HMI Technologies, the Auckland-based company that has a lock on the market for those smart road signs that use radar gauge your speed then display it and, if necessary, tell you to slow down.

Earlier, HMI Technologies and Ohmio chief executive Dean Zabrieszach said his first preference was to raise around $10m locally to develop his company's self-driving cars. But when there were no takers, he turned to Heshan.

A quick history of mobile networks

• 1G: First-generation mobile networks that support voice calls only

• 2G: Adds support for text messaging

• 3G: Web browsing and email capability added

• 4G: Boosted bandwidth to support apps, high-def streaming video

• 5G: Promises fibre-like speed, little of the lag associated with earlier mobile networks' switch two-way data connections, much enhanced support for the "Internet of Things" or machines talking to each other over the internet