It's not every day that one member of a president's administration accuses another of endangering Americans. But Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao didn't let norms get in the way when she commented on a rule change proposed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai.
The change, unanimously approved by the FCC on November 18, opens a communications band previously reserved for automotive safety applications to unlicensed uses (read: Wi-Fi). Pai's FCC has been planning the new rule at least since May 2019. Now that it's official, automakers and research groups are faced with the prospect of starting over on nearly a decade of research.
Since October 1999, the FCC has reserved part of the 5.9 GHz band of radio waves for dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) between vehicles and infrastructure, a concept often referred to as V2X. The idea was that if cars could communicate with each other, human-error accidents could be avoided. One car could alert others nearby if its driver slammed on the brakes. Cars could warn their drivers when there was a pedestrian waiting to cross a busy street, or when a light was about to turn red.
For more than a decade after the band was set aside for V2X, nothing much happened. But in the early 2010s, researchers, automakers, and various departments of transportation started running V2X pilot projects. Debby Bezzina, the managing director of the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation, a part of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), says that a real-world test environment that UMTRI has built in Ann Arbor, Michigan, represents $50 million worth of investment. Other projects scattered across the country account for millions more.
But—and this was Pai's hook—outside study environments, vanishingly few cars are DSRC capable. Some post-2017 Cadillac CTS sedans were built with the technology. Toyota had planned to make its cars DSRC compatible starting in 2021 but abandoned the plan in mid-2019. In a letter to the FCC, Toyota said the decision was based on its assessment that the commission was not committed to preserving the DSRC band, and that other automakers weren't acting quickly enough to install the technology in their cars.
That letter came just about a month before Pai spoke publicly for the first time about his plan to open the band up other users, specifically to provide more air space for Wi-Fi. When the pandemic struck and Americans started spending a lot more time working and streaming from their home Wi-Fi systems, Pai saw his opportunity. The rule change was branded as a modernization that would ease the transition to a work-from-home lifestyle. Researchers who are using the 5.9 GHz band (the Department of Transportation calls it the Safety Band) will have to vacate the lower frequencies within a year, and there's a proposed two-year timeline for the switch to a different technology entirely.
That new technology would use cellular communication—the LTE and 5G networks that your phone uses—to help cars talk to each other and the environment. In his announcement of the rule change, Pai said the move to cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X) would improve automotive safety. But Bezzina's not as certain.
The CV2X and DSRC technologies are capable of the same things, but CV2X is relatively untested, and the two technologies aren't compatible, so researchers will have to start fresh rather than dropping CV2X technology in as they go. Plus America's patchy 5G network means the first applications will likely be with LTE modules that eventually need to be replaced. And even if all the knowledge researchers have gained from DSRC ultimately transfers to CV2X, safety concerns demand that the new technology go through a whole new round of testing before it's ready to go. Still, CV2X is not without its supporters; Ford has promised to start introducing the tech in its China-market cars by 2021.
CV2X may ultimately hit the same roadblock that has stopped DSRC from taking root. "The only way to get it to work is if everyone has it," Bezzina says. So, if you take a heavily trafficked road and put only one car with V2V capability on it, no one benefits. It's a talking car with no one to talk to. Only when many or most of the cars and pieces of infrastructure on the road are broadcasting data will the benefits be realized.
Bezzina reckons that the industry will appeal the FCC's new rule, which could delay or derail it. Pai has said he will step down from his post on January 20, six months ahead of schedule. President-elect Joe Biden will nominate someone new for the job, though the post requires Senate confirmation. There's plenty to see here for history-repeating types: In January 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation proposed a new rule that would make vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology mandatory in all new vehicles, a mandate that would have solved the industry's collective action problem. Eight days after the rule was proposed, President Trump was inaugurated. The rule was never finalized.