Ca­ble field, auto firms fight for space on crowded spec­trum

Baltimore Sun - - BUSINESS MARYLAND - By Joan Lowy

A pedes­trian crosses in front of a car as part of a demon­stra­tion in Ann Ar­bor, Mich. Ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy has been in de­vel­op­ment for over a decade.

WASH­ING­TON — Cars that wire­lessly talk to one an­other are fi­nally ready for the road, cre­at­ing the po­ten­tial to dra­mat­i­cally re­duce traf­fic deaths, im­prove the safety of self-driv­ing cars and some­day maybe even help solve traf­fic jams, au­tomak­ers and govern­ment of­fi­cials say.

But there’s a big catch. The ca­ble television and high-tech industries want to take away a large share of the ra­dio air­waves the govern­ment ded­i­cated for trans­porta­tion in 1999 and use it in­stead for super-fast Wi-Fi ser­vice. Auto in­dus­try of­fi­cials are fight­ing to hang on to as much of the spec­trum as they can, say­ing they ex­pect they will ul­ti­mately need all of it for the new ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle com­mu­ni­ca­tions, or V2V.

The govern­ment and the auto in­dus­try have spent over a decade and more than $1 bil­lion re­search­ing and test­ing V2V tech. The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion is ex­pected to pro­pose as early as next month that new cars and trucks come equipped with it. Gen­eral Mo­tors isn’t wait­ing for the pro­posal, say­ing it will include V2V in Cadil­lac CTS sedans be­fore the end of the year.

“We’re los­ing 35,000 peo­ple ev­ery year (to traf­fic crashes),” said Harry Light­sey, a Gen­eral Mo­tors lob­by­ist. “This tech­nol­ogy has the power to dra­mat­i­cally re­duce that. To me, the abil­ity of some­body to down­load movies or search the in­ter­net or what­ever should be sec­ondary to that.”

The fight pits two govern­ment agen­cies against each other: the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, which reg­u­lates the spec­trum and sym­pa­thizes with wire­less pro­po­nents, and the NHTSA, which reg­u­lates auto safety and has long made V2V a top pri­or­ity. The White House, which is cur­rently re­view­ing the NHTSA’s pro­posal to re­quire the tech­nol­ogy in new cars, is caught be­tween two of its goals: greater auto safety and faster wire­less ser­vice.

With V2V, cars and trucks wire­lessly trans­mit their lo­ca­tion, speed, di­rec­tion and other in­for­ma­tion 10 times per sec­ond. That lets cars de­tect when an­other ve­hi­cle is about to run a red light, is brak­ing hard or is com­ing around a blind turn in time for the driver or, in the case of self-driv­ing cars, the ve­hi­cle it­self to act to pre­vent a crash.

V2V’s range is up to about 1,000 yards in all di­rec­tions, even when sight is blocked by build­ings or other ob­sta­cles. That gives the tech­nol­ogy the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to de­tect a po­ten­tial col­li­sion be­fore the driver can see the threat, un­like the sen­sors and cam­eras of self-driv­ing cars that note what’s im­me­di­ately around the ve­hi­cle.

In May, a Tesla Model S sedan in “Au­topi­lot” mode crashed into the side of a trac­tor-trailer that was mak­ing a left turn, killing the Tesla driver and draw­ing at­ten­tion to the lim­i­ta­tions of self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy. The ac­ci­dent is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but auto in­dus­try ex­perts say the crash likely would have been avoided if the two ve­hi­cles had been equipped with V2V.

The govern­ment es­ti­mates that V2V could even­tu­ally pre­vent or mit­i­gate more than 80 per­cent of col­li­sions that don’t in­volve a driver im­paired by drugs or al­co­hol.

Ul­ti­mately, self-driv­ing cars also equipped with V2V may be the an­swer to traf­fic con­ges­tion be­cause they’ll be able to syn­chro­nize their move­ments, in­dus­try of­fi­cials say, so that they can merge seam­lessly and travel in long, closely packed car­a­vans at higher speeds. That would im­prove traf­fic flow and in­crease high­way ca­pac­ity. Cars will also com­mu­ni­cate with traf­fic sig­nals to make in­ter­sec­tions more ef­fi­cient.

Those who want more of the air­waves for Wi-Fi say that, with self-driv­ing cars on the hori­zon to elim­i­nate hu­man er­rors, the safety ben­e­fits of V2V are less im­por­tant. They point out that it could be more than 20 years be­fore the full ben­e­fits of V2V are re­al­ized be­cause it takes decades for the au­to­mo­tive fleet to be com­pletely re­placed.

FCC Com­mis­sioner Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel de­rided V2V as a turn-of-the-cen­tury tech­nol­ogy at a fo­rum on the mat­ter ear­lier this year, say­ing it’s time to put the spec­trum re­served for auto safety to bet­ter use.

As the air­waves grow more con­gested with traf­fic such as video chat and stream­ing, new, un­re­served swaths of spec­trum are seen as key to cre­at­ing the “wider pipe” needed to meet de­mand.

Au­tomak­ers say they’re will­ing to share the spec­trum but only if it won’t cause V2V sig­nals to be dropped or slowed. The safety sig­nals need to trans­mit 10 times faster than a typ­i­cal cell­phone call and be 100 per­cent re­li­able. The FCC plans to test pro­pos­als to share the air­waves.

Mean­while, wire­less sup­port­ers have pe­ti­tioned the FCC for an emer­gency or­der to put off us­ing V2V in the con­tested spec­trum un­til cy­ber­se­cu­rity stan­dards are de­vel­oped. Au­tomak­ers con­tend that such safe­guards al­ready are built in.


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