Connected at 200 mph: How 5G is transforming auto racing and beyond

Formula One has always utilized the latest technologies. But now you need more than a fast car to take the checkered flag—you need fast data.

Connected at 200 mph: How 5G is transforming auto racing and beyond
McLaren Applied Technologies

Modern race cars are essentially powerful computers on four wheels. High-speed-connectivity technologies like 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have provided racing teams with unprecedented levels of real-time data, from engine temperatures to the grip of the tires. And there is no shortage of real-world applications for these powerful tools. During a panel discussion at Cisco Live 2019 in June, two industry leaders talked about these transformations. Their insights have helped steer the world’s best automotive racing teams—and forward-looking companies—into the winner’s circle. The following is an abbreviated transcript of their conversation.


Paul, could you start by telling us a bit about McLaren Applied Technologies?

Paul Spence, chief technologist, McLaren Applied Technologies: We started off as an electronics department at McLaren Racing. And now we’re a separate company. We provide electronics for all the Formula One teams, as well as teams at Nascar and Indy Car. But that’s a small market. So we’ve taken the technologies we’ve developed for motorsport to the real world. In rail, it’s providing passenger Wi-Fi. In automotive, it’s safe stop modules in autonomous vehicles. And in healthcare, it’s improving well-being through our digital sensors.

Can you explain the importance of real-time data and how it helps F1 teams be more competitive?

PS: In the U.S., most auto racing takes place on oval tracks. In Formula One, it’s on city streets or tracks out in the country—all of them having 10 to 15 turns. And the cars are doing up to 230 miles an hour. So it’s a massive push on technology. There’s a huge engineering activity that goes on in all of the F1 teams.

Off our cars, we’re collecting around 2,000 key performance indicators (KPI) direct from sensors or virtual sensors. And that data is sent in real time to the engineers in the garage who are making decisions, as well as the engineers back at the factory. They have to address two fundamental engineering activities: Is the machine working as it should be? And are we extracting the maximum performance? The performance of a racecar is a compromise, managing a huge amount of variables.

Paul Spence, chief technologist, McLaren Applied Technologies

Of course, the real value is what your team does with this huge mass of real-time data…

PS: Absolutely. Connectivity and capturing huge volumes of data doesn’t solve all the problems—you’ve got to be able to use that data. And often that is about building a virtual model and understanding what that model is telling you about what’s going on in the actual vehicle. Having high-speed connectivity means you can continuously develop that model and get better intelligence. You can do your business better because that model is your core intelligence.

Moving off the racetrack, these kinds of tools must have many real-world applications. Greg, what’s your perspective on these high-speed connectivity technologies?

Greg Dorai, vice president, product management/enterprise wireless solutions, Cisco: Thinking broadly about the real world, one big current trend is the immersive experience. There are thousands upon thousands of pieces of data that needs to go to the cloud and get pushed right back. That closed loop is what we’re trying to do with high-speed connectivity. But you also need latency measured in milliseconds. In a race-car situation, if you need to brake, an entire second may be too late.

Not so long ago, mobile apps were just small-screen versions of what you saw on a laptop computer. But Uber changed all that with a black dot and relevant real-time information. And more applications have continued to deliver that kind of immersive digital experience.


It’s also important to make sure you’re focused on the right data for your business and presenting it so you can quickly discover the data you need to see.

Greg Dorai, vice president, product management/enterprise wireless solutions, Cisco

GD: Certainly. And I’ll use another example to bring this to life, this time in retail. You walk into a store and the retailer wants to give a great experience. Like many others, you’ve done your shopping at home using the retailer’s app and you’re coming in the store to pick up your purchases. As soon as you enter the store, the infrastructure has to recognize you’ve walked in. And your profile needs to get pushed to someone in the store at that instant. And that associate will welcome you and say, “Welcome, Paul, I know you’re here to pick up your goggles, and here they are.” That’s a great experience.

So, location-based technology integrated with the app is clearly not race-car speed, but it can complete that closed loop and create an immersive experience in a physical store.

Let’s shift this conversation to edge computing, where actual processes are not done in the cloud but on the device itself. Paul, what are you seeing with race cars that run with this next-generation technology?

PS: We’ve been doing what you describe as edge computing for a long time. If we’re looking at really high-frequency stuff on the car, you can’t send all that data. You collect it and reduce and extract only what you need. Take an ignition system. We have to monitor the ignition current at around 100 kilohertz, which is an awful lot of data to share. But one in a hundred thousand misfires actually fails. So we collect and ship that data.


Motorsport is all about the race to develop things quickly. So you must have efficient processes and visibility that can help us understand when it works and when it doesn’t.

Of course, high bandwidth is worthless without the ability to process the data and send back actionable information.

PS: We can keep on increasing bandwidth. But we have to really use that bandwidth carefully and collect the data with care. It’s like being lazy with your filing system. If you just file away everything you ever get, it becomes that much harder, even with great search engines, to find the data you really want and need.

But applied thoughtfully, and with high reliability and quality of service, high-bandwidth technologies can have a huge impact in any number of domains.

GD: Healthcare is one area in which high-speed connectivity can be transformative—not even remote surgery, but remote diagnostics. A nurse is examining a patient and can send a high-res image to a doctor thousands of miles away. And the connection needs to be super-reliable. So, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G make this possible even across great distances.


On the manufacturing side are factories that incorporate industrial internet of things (IIoT) with time-sensitive networking. They need high-speed connectivity with ultralow latency—even millisecond lags can be costly.

Looking out 5 or 10 years, what are some of the things you’re excited to see as high-speed technologies begin to roll out?

GD: There’s so much that’s going to happen technology-wise that the possibilities seem infinite. By 2021 or 2022, it’s expected that more traffic will pass through the internet than in the previous 30 years combined. An explosion in data and connectivity is just around the corner. Whether it’s connected cars or completely smart cities where a lot of things can be done wirelessly, all of this is possible.

To see more of this engaging conversation, watch the full discussion below. 

This article was created for and commissioned by Cisco.

About the author

FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.