Optical Networking, Redefined.
February 16, 2023

Cruise or Crash? How Optical Transceivers Support Autonomous Vehicles

Optical transceivers and associated active/passive components play a crucial role in providing the foundation for autonomous vehicles to become a practical and safe reality. Here’s how. 


Autonomous vehicles. When are they coming? Will they work? What will it take to bring this technology from where it is now to mass availability? If like us, you saw the infamous anti-Tesla ad during Superbowl LVII this past weekend, two facts are clear: 1) everyone has an opinion on autonomous vehicles and 2)  engineers, automotive manufacturers and governments are continuing to collaborate on bringing this technology into the mainstream. It’s not just Tesla either.Mercedes Benz, General Motors, Waymo and other companies are continuing to push forward with delivering fully functional, safe autonomous vehicles.

At this point, you might be asking yourself why a network system engineering and integration company like us is talking about autonomous vehicles. While we clearly don’t make parts that go into these vehicles, the promise of safer, more efficient transportation relies on the availability of high-performing, low latency networks. In this way, optical transceivers and associated active/passive components play a crucial role in providing the foundation for autonomous vehicles to become a practical and safe reality. Here’s how.

5G Considerations

One of the biggest challenges autonomous vehicles face is the need for real-time communication and data transfer. The vehicle must be able to receive information about its surroundings, traffic patterns, and road conditions, and respond to these conditions in real-time. 5G’s higher speeds, less latency and greater capacity to handle larger numbers of connected devices make it an optimal technology for autonomous vehicles to rely on, especially in crowded metropolitan areas.

That said, rolling out 5G is not without its own considerations for carriers, MSOs and other network operators. Taking the focus away from the autonomous vehicles themselves, assisting our customers with their 5G rollouts is a core part of our work in this exciting era of new innovations. As we’ve pointed out in a previous blog, we offer a complete range of solutions for Layer 1 of any 5G network. That said, each 5G deployment is unique and many exciting developments in the conceptualization and capabilities of Layer 1 hardware, as well as the engineering and software that goes into it, are creating new opportunities and challenges for network operators. Let’s look at a few of these – through the lens of networks as the foundation for supporting the future of autonomous vehicles in our daily lives.

Connecting to the Headend

It’s best to think about a 5G network first in terms of Macrocells and Small Cells. While Macrocell networks typically leverage a high-power cell site on the top of towers or buildings to provide low-frequency radio coverage for longer distances, small cells use small, highly directional antennas to direct coverage to a specific location over a short distance. Both cell types include outside plant (external infrastructure) and inside plant (components installed inside a building like a central office or headend) elements.

While there is no optical network play in the direct wireless connection from an autonomous vehicle to small cells (or even macro cells in more rural areas), the Remote Radio Head (RRH) is where optical transceivers and other equipment (like Mux/Demux units) come in. This is because the RRH is where the data generated by an autonomous vehicle begins its round-trip journey to the central office/headend and beyond to the core network. While some data will be generated and processed at the edge in real-time, directly within the autonomous vehicles, other information will go on to the core network for intensive data-crunching and storage. In fact, Intel estimates that autonomous vehicles could create upwards of 4 terabytes of data per day, per car.

Returning to the RRH, 10G SFP+ DWDM and 25G DWDM optics, as well as their bidirectional (BIDI) variants are the optics of choice for transporting the data generated by autonomous vehicles from the cells onward. While 10G SFP+ optics support link distances between 10 and 80km, the 25G SFP28 form factor is limited to a maximum distance of 40km. As a result, network operators must factor in their necessary link distances when considering 25G SFP28 DWDM optics for their architectures. Beyond transceivers, leveraging DWDM requires network operators to rely on Mux/Demux units to multiplex all the inbound wavelengths into the fiber and then demultiplex them at the headend/central office. Check out our product page here to discover the different types of Mux/Demux units Precision OT offers.

Connecting to the Core

For high-speed, low latency data transport to the core, a 5G inside plant deployment needs multiple Layer 1 solutions, including Mux/Demux units, transceivers, racks, patch panels and cords, fiber cables and jacks. This equipment is vital to enable the high-speed transport of traffic from the headend/central office to the data center at rates from 100G to 400G DWDM.

As we’ve noted before, 5G demands not only greater fiber densification towards the edge, but also significantly higher data rates. Where 100G and 200G used to be considered advanced, network operators are continuing to migrate to 400G, as a way to meet end-users’ demands for more bandwidth. It’s worth noting, however, that adopting 400G DWDM isn’t a simple task. With two standards for pluggable coherent 400G DWDM optics available today, 400ZR and OpenZR+, network operators must consider their needs and a variety of integration issues including, but not limited to:

  • Link distances – The 400ZR standard enables DCI for distances up to 80-120km, while OpenZR+ enables a reach of up to hundreds of kilometers with external amplification.
  • Power consumption – 400ZR optics typically consume around 15-20W, whereas OpenZR+ optics need as much as 25W per module.
  • Host platform compatibility – It’s important for operators to ask themselves what their transceivers will plug into. They must determine how restrictive the host platform is both to the type of optic and to whether it comes from a third-party source. For example, it is possible to have 36 ports of 400G per 1RU in a switch or router. However, very few host platforms will allow a full 1RU of OpenZR+ at this density.
  • Multi-vendor interoperability – Network operators need to know whether their existing platform infrastructure requires NEM transceivers or whether it is friendly toward other sources. Where it’s possible to use third-party optics (and associated equipment), systems integration and product support will become a key piece of the puzzle.

For the almost 4.5 billion people that live in metropolitan areas and could one day rely on autonomous vehicles  for daily transportation, 5G networks will be critical in making this happen. The architectures and Layer 1 solutions for all aspects of 5G networks already exist, so, in many ways, the push towards an autonomous vehicle future lies very much with the automotive manufacturers. But within the optical networking industry, 5G deployments and network operator needs are always evolving. As they roll out this new cellular standard worldwide, many continue to face the challenges of upgrading legacy infrastructure or integrating new equipment within existing architectures. That’s where having a systems integration partner like Precision OT becomes critical.

Looking to the Future

In many ways, the future of autonomous vehicles is wide open from an optical networking perspective. However, bringing 5G to more end-users worldwide will mean more need for assistance with integrating innovative technology and vendor-neutral third-party optical equipment. That’s exactly what the Precision OT team is about – offering deep-seated systems integration expertise along with a sophisticated range of high-quality, high-performance optics and associated products. No matter where our customers are on their 5G journeys, we can help. Contact us today to find out how we can help you build or upgrade the networks you need – the data transport highways of today that will enable not only autonomous vehicles but also a host of other technological advancements that can change our lives.