WASHINGTON -- What qualifies as a safety-related communication?
Well, here's what doesn't qualify: traffic alerts, parking-spot beacons, advertising and social-media messages. That much was made clear in a blog post this month by FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly.
The clear line in the sand is a setback for automakers, which have struggled to defend their claim to a critical segment of the radio spectrum once reserved for "dedicated short-range communications" between vehicles, and fend off competing claims from cable and Internet companies seeking more bandwidth for Wi-Fi services.
O'Rielly cited nine potential uses of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications that are unrelated to "safety of life." As such, those uses don't deserve exclusive use of radio channels, he wrote. Indeed, he argued, sharing those frequencies could create "considerable" benefits from the broader availability of high-speed Wi-Fi.
The full Federal Communications Commission is evaluating whether transmissions from so-called unlicensed Wi-Fi devices can safely coexist in the 5.9-gigahertz wireless band with cars that talk to one another. That answer will, in turn, influence whether and how the FCC decides to apportion the channels among the auto industry and other users.
O'Rielly's position has unnerved some in the auto industry, who warn that drawing distinctions now between safety and nonsafety uses of V2V technology, before it's deployed commercially, could limit its life-saving potential prematurely.
"We think Commissioner O'Rielly has it backwards," said John Bozzella, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, which represents foreign-owned carmakers. "He should be more concerned about unnecessary restrictions on potential safety innovations that DSRC will bring. We need to think broadly about the future of safety and the benefits that will come from vehicle-to-vehicle communications and automated car technologies."
The automakers are paying a price for their bad timing. It has taken more than 15 years of study and development for automakers to even come close to commercial deployment. The 2017 Cadillac CTS will be the first new vehicle with onboard V2V capability, and it could be decades before the technology spreads to the rest of the fleet.
By contrast, the ubiquitous Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone has proved its utility and given rise to a robust Internet of Things that will demand ever more wireless capacity.
It's too soon to tell what route the FCC will choose, but if O'Rielly's note is any indication, automakers have a tough fight on their hands.