Safety advocates are clinging to hopes they can save a slice of radio frequency spectrum that might hold the potential to save the lives of thousands of motorists.
In the latest chapter in a contentious dispute — and likely a last-ditch effort — two prominent transportation safety organizations filed a lawsuit in June that asks a federal judge to overturn portions of a Federal Communications Commission order that shrunk the portion of the spectrum allocated for what's become known as V2X, or "vehicle to everything," automotive communications.
Further, the order scuttled an older method for transmitting these critical safety messages called Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) that had been under development for more than two decades — in favor of a cellular method that requires further testing.
In the lawsuit, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials say the FCC overstepped its authority when it allocated the portion of the 5.9-gigahertz spectrum that had been reserved for the auto industry to other businesses.
Further, they say the decision "undercuts" the potential lifesaving benefits, which involve the rapid transmission of hazard warnings, obstacle detections or updates on road conditions.
In stripping away 45 of the 75 megahertz that had been set aside since 1999 for V2X messages, the FCC argued the auto industry had done little to deliver that lifesaving potential over 20 years, and that the spectrum was needed to help fill an insatiable demand for wireless broadband growing at "a phenomenal pace."
In some fashion, the move could boost the build-out of 5G networks across the country. Indeed, the FCC reserved the remaining 30 MHz of the spectrum for cellular use only — ending R&D and limited deployments of DSRC.
The move effectively ended years of competition between the two V2X methods of communication as well as industry indecisiveness regarding them. Some automakers, Ford Motor Co. for example, have backed the cellular approach, with hopes that fledgling 5G technology could soon speed up the delivery of messages between vehicles, infrastructure and pedestrians.
That's already happening in some places. The 5G Automotive Association, an industry trade group that advocates for cellular progress in next-generation transportation networks, says 5G-enabled vehicles are already commercialized in China, and that efforts in Europe to deploy cellular V2X in advanced safety cases in widespread fashion could reach fruition by 2024.
But in the U.S., with the automotive portion of the spectrum reduced, the 5G Automotive Association noted it was "concerned about the potential for harmful interference from Wi-Fi devices allowed to use the power portion of the 5.9 GHz band under the proposal."
In an unusual quarrel between federal departments, the Department of Transportation opposed the FCC's order. At the time of the decision, then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao warned it put efforts to save thousands of lives "in peril" and said the FCC's move was "not grounded in data or sound science."
A DOT spokesperson did not return a request for comment on whether the current department supports the efforts of ITS America and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to reverse the FCC order, which was published in the federal register in May. There's not yet a timetable for hearings on the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the future of a technology that could cut the carnage on U.S. roads remains in limbo.