Technology is "at the 1-yard line" but faces political obstacles
By Ryan Beene
WASHINGTON -- After more than a decade of r&d, vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology is reaching a key political juncture that could determine when and how "talking" cars appear on our roads.
Automakers and regulators view the technology as a potential game changer for road safety. Equipping cars and roadside infrastructure with special radios that constantly transmit and receive information including vehicle speed, direction and braking could reduce crashes by unimpaired drivers by 80 percent, U.S. officials say.
"We're at the 1-yard line," said Harry Lightsey, executive director for public policy at General Motors' connected-car unit. "We're at the point where this technology is ready to be deployed."
But whether the auto industry will surge over the goal line or be forced to take a timeout hinges on two pending decisions from the Obama administration.
First, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is awaiting White House approval on a proposed rule to require all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems. Though normally averse to new regulations, automakers say a mandate is needed in this case to set common standards so the connected-car systems of different automakers speak the same language.
Meanwhile, a battle is raging over access to the radio frequencies that would be used by V2V systems, with automakers on one side and cable providers and some technology companies on the other. The Federal Communications Commission, which in 1999 carved out a slice of radio spectrum exclusively for safety-related connected-car use, now is considering ways to share that spectrum with "unlicensed" users, such as Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices.
NHTSA's proposed V2V mandate is viewed by policy experts as the most important step for connected-car deployment. Although the proposal's language hasn't been made public, the mandate is viewed as the easiest path for automakers to coalesce around common technical and security standards.
The proposal could be approved by the White House as early as this month, opening it up for public comment. Or it could take much longer.
With just eight months left of the Obama administration, the risk of a significant delay is real, says Steven Bayless, vice president of technology and markets at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. The White House could require NHTSA to provide more analysis or wait until the FCC's ruling on spectrum sharing, Bayless says. And the new administration may have different regulatory priorities, which could diminish chances of a quick approval.
"What happens this year will affect the auto industry a great deal."
Steven Bayless Intelligent Transportation Society of America
Last month, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the main trade group for the cable TV industry, plus Google, Qualcomm and a coalition of other groups, urged the FCC to open the 5.9-gigahertz band of the radio spectrum, designated in 1999 for connected cars, to "unlicensed" Wi-Fi users, saying the auto industry had effectively forfeited its sole claim to the band.
"After 15 years, [intelligent transportation systems have] not made meaningful use of the band, and while some use may emerge, other technologies have developed over this time that have overtaken ITS in the marketplace," the group said.
The two proposals now before the FCC came out of a Senate committee request for feedback from automakers, cable providers and other stakeholders. One, proposed by Cisco Systems and Denso and supported by the auto industry, would allow the other users in but require their devices to check for potential interference from nearby connected vehicles before transmitting a signal.
In the other proposal, made by Qualcomm, the FCC would repartition the 5.9 GHz band, allocating nearly 60 percent of it to unlicensed users and cordoning off the rest for connected vehicles.
Automakers argue that squeezing the V2V functions in this narrower belt would lead to clashes between signals, with urgent public-safety messages carried on more powerful channels drowning out basic transmissions regarding vehicle speed and direction.
Lightsey likened it to roping off part of a sidewalk that's crowded with people moving at different speeds. "They bump into each other a lot more," he said.
It also would force automakers and suppliers to revamp the communications systems they have spent billions of dollars developing, including the V2V technology that GM plans to launch in the 2017 Cadillac CTS, Lightsey says.
"The hardware that we've designed to put into that Cadillac is all based on the current format," he said.
The FCC is expected to begin overseeing tests of each model this summer and has asked all stakeholders to "refresh the record" with their positions ahead of its decision.
"This is a critical time," ITS' Bayless said. "What happens this year will affect the auto industry a great deal in the coming years."
You can reach Ryan Beene at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Follow Ryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RyanBeeneAN
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