Why Wednesday hearing could be connected cars' moment of truth

Viable technology or vaporware?

WASHINGTON -- In the software industry, people talk about vaporware -- products that are heavily promoted but never seem to go on sale.

Automakers are at the point that they must prove that connected cars, which talk to each other over Wi-Fi to stay out of fender-benders, are more than just vaporware.

Back in 1999, the Federal Communications Commission set aside a section of the wireless spectrum for transportation to keep connected cars free of interference.

But after years of research, the cars still are not for sale, and the proliferation of wireless devices has led to skyrocketing demand for bandwidth. So, as Automotive News reported earlier this year, the FCC is proposing to let cellphones and computers share the same airwaves -- something automakers say would harm the technology.

The issue will get some attention on Capitol Hill Wednesday when David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will testify at a U.S. Senate hearing on advanced safety features for cars.

Strickland has promised to decide by the end of 2013 on a plan for putting the technology into light-duty vehicles.

The decision will largely rest on a yearlong study of connected cars in Ann Arbor, Mich. About 3,000 cars, trucks and buses were equipped with Wi-Fi for the study, testing the connected car technology as they drive around town.

Peter Sweatman, who oversees the research project as director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, also will testify Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The turf war between the auto industry and the wireless industry at the FCC has made clear that if connected cars get labeled as vaporware, it could have real consequences.

If they want to keep connected cars on track, automakers and NHTSA need to prove that the technology they have spent years developing is the real deal.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at

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