As a communications technology leader, Huawei is well placed to explore new opportunities in mobility. Founded in Shenzhen in 1987, it began by providing communications equipment for mobile phone networks. Today, it is estimated that one-third of the world’s population uses networks powered by Huawei. The company is also the world’s largest holder of 5G patents, which find applications in everything from mobile phones and connected vehicle features to autonomous driving and smart manufacturing. Huawei also holds patents in the booming electric vehicle (EV) segment.
That’s a lot of megatrends for one company, and its diversification could position it as a key player in a mobility ecosystem characterised by connected, autonomous shared and electric technology. That said, recent years have cast a shadow over its prospects with some markets voicing concerns that Huawei networks could be a threat to national security. The US has been particularly vocal on the topic, claiming that the Chinese government could use Huawei’s 5G equipment for spying.
Chief Technology Officer Paul Scanlan isn’t just steering the company’s technology strategy; he’s also tasked with the role of educator and a big part of that, he tells Automotive World, is dispelling myths.
How would you describe Huawei’s contribution to new mobility?
Huawei’s core business is to provide the infrastructure that would allow any device to be able to be connected in some shape or form.
Your core technology is applicable to various industries. How important will the mobility industry be for you moving forward?
Given the direction of EVs and how they require components that Huawei makes, it’s a natural step to move into the automotive industry to provide these types of products. We have a number of collaborations in China and beyond supplying components directly to the vehicle. We are also using 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and IoT technologies to transform the vehicle manufacturing process. We put sensors and cameras everywhere to monitor quality and precision. Within manufacturing, automotive is arguably the most valuable sector because it churns out such high-value objects: cars.
As CTO you’re helping to steer the technology direction of the company. What does future-proofing look like under your watch?
My core focus, certainly in the last few years, has been application of 5G together with cloud, AI and the IoT. I’m taking these core technologies and applying them to enterprise or business solutions. My job is to drive industry transformation, because industry transformation will ultimately drive economies by making them more digital, more efficient, more green. If I’m talking about 5G, I’d rather talk about how we save a billion lives. You can trust 5G to do that. If you want to reduce a billion tons of carbon dioxide, you can trust 5G to do that.
And the most challenging part in all of this?
First of all, we need education. My job is to educate the public, the governments, the media and the industry players about these technologies and dispel the myths. Then there is collaboration. Governments and other enterprises, maybe vendors like Huawei, and other developers both local and foreign, need to come together to build the proof of concept, or an incubation facility to show how to take advantage of these technologies to benefit mankind. I’m really looking at applications of these technologies in an innovative way and how I can promote the solutions to different countries.
Can you give an example of how you might promote connectivity?
Take the UK. If we were to connect all the traffic infrastructure—the cars, the lampposts, the traffic lights, the stop signs—and if we had cameras in all the cars looking forward, behind, left, right, down at the roads, and if you could manage that traffic infrastructure, you would improve logistics and pollution significantly. And the direct contribution of a number of different components of that connected traffic infrastructure would improve the GDP by a couple of percentage points. That’s a very attractive reason why you’d like to have 5G with AI.
How pivotal is 5G to the evolution of the connected and autonomous vehicle?
Connected vehicles don’t necessarily need 5G. Even autonomous driving, you could also argue, doesn’t necessarily need 5G to make it work in its basic form. At the same time, providing a 5G network along roads has significant advantages.
There’s been considerable excitement around 5G but also some concerns that cellular transmitters can have a negative impact on human health. Any thoughts on how that issue might be resolved?
It’s unfortunate that that’s been bandied around in the media so long. The original study that raised concerns was done in the early 2000s in the US, and it was not a rigorous study. The World Health Organization’s latest analysis suggests there’s no correlation between health risks and any of the mobile networks. Nobody raised any concerns with WiMAX, which uses the same spectrum as 5G. With 5G, the only reason we’re using higher frequencies is because it has larger bandwidth and it’s more attractive to provide better services and better quality of service. In terms of the power density, all the vendors comply with national and international health standards.
Huawei is also involved with vehicle electrification. What are some of the challenges you are tackling on this front?
Technical challenges are everywhere. In EVs, it’s all about energy density. How do you store more electricity? How do you manage that software? Everybody—not just Huawei— is trying to solve that problem. The general aim is to make things smaller, faster, smarter, cheaper. That’s fundamental to business. It is not just electronics; it’s also about material science.
Where do you see the industry by the end of the decade?
That depends on several variables. In some regions the regulatory policy facilitates investment in building the networks, which is generally done by the telecom operator. Within vehicle manufacturing, you have to deploy this technology in the factory but that depends on the manufacturing company understanding digital transformation, 5G, IoT and AI. The gap in these variables is enormous across the world. If a country that has them lined up pretty well, then you can expect them to move forward at a good pace. I expect all vehicle plants to be well and truly 5G-enabled before 2030. We have engaged, all the vendors have engaged with the automotive manufacturers, pilots have been done across the board with probably all of them. Therefore, it’s a scaling thing, which I don’t expect to take more than a couple of years.
What do the 2020s hold for Huawei?
As a result of the pandemic and changing behaviours, telecom operators have realised that there is absolutely a market for 5G, and in a different way than expected. The rate of take-up is significantly faster than we would have expected. We are very bullish about 5G—the whole world has become very bullish, so that’s a good match. If you can’t sell product A but your core capability means you have the ability to sell in 20 other products, then we move into the 20 other products. For those countries where they like Huawei and China, we’re happy to do business there. For those countries that don’t, we need to work a little bit harder to convince them that they can trust Huawei.