Connected cars may have to share the air
FCC mulls letting Wi-Fi devices use same band
WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission sent a clear warning to the auto industry last week: Show progress on "connected car" technology or risk losing exclusive access to a coveted section of the wireless spectrum.
Connected cars, which have been in development for more than a decade, would communicate with one another using wireless signals to avoid crashes.
The FCC voted to consider letting Wi-Fi devices use the 5.9 GHz band that the commission set aside for vehicle safety technology in 1999. Commissioners said the government needs to let businesses and individuals use more of the large swaths of the spectrum reserved for special uses, such as connected cars.
"Putting these bands to better commercial use could have tremendous benefits," FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said before the vote.
The FCC is not expected to decide the matter until next year at the earliest.
The idea of sharing the band had trade groups for automakers and suppliers up in arms. They say wireless devices such as cell phones could interfere with the signals from cars, holding back a technology that could prevent thousands of driving deaths annually.
"If you've got cars communicating within milliseconds to avoid crashes, do you want that interfered with because your 10-year-old is watching streaming, high-def video in the back of the minivan?" asked Paul Feenstra, a senior vice president at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit advocacy group that represents corporations, public agencies and academic institutions with an interest in such transportation technologies.
If opened up to Wi-Fi devices, the 5.9 GHz band would expand the total bandwidth available to such devices by 14 percent and enable them to transmit data much more quickly.
When the FCC first granted the 5.9 GHz band for the development of connected vehicles, automakers expected to start putting the technology into cars in five to seven years, sources say. Yet the features remain experimental, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to put out rules that would hasten their use.
Last August, the agency put 2,800 connected cars, buses and trucks on roads in Ann Arbor, Mich., to gather data. That pilot project concludes this summer, after which NHTSA is expected to make a decision on light-duty vehicles in 2013.
In the meantime, automakers find themselves pitted against telecommunications companies. The band of the spectrum set aside for connected cars, adjacent to a band that already carries Wi-Fi signals, would sell for billions of dollars if it were put up for auction, says Mark Johnson, a telecommunications lawyer at Squire Sanders in Washington.
The FCC says it will review research to determine whether connected cars and Wi-Fi devices can coexist on the same area of the spectrum without harmful interference. The commission is not expected to come out with a final rule until next year at the earliest.
Automakers and their regulators "need to show they're working," says Johnson, who helped draft the petition that persuaded the FCC to set aside bandwidth for vehicle safety technology in 1999. "Otherwise, why would they get to keep the spectrum?"
Michael Cammisa, director of safety at the Association of Global Automakers, said the features are getting closer to the market. Two of the trade group's members, Toyota and Nissan, have worked with other automakers on a joint project to develop connected cars.
"A lot of technical work had to be done, and that's why it has taken a long time," he said. "We really are gaining steam and moving ahead with this."
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