The global battle over the connected car shifted into high gear during the past few weeks as the European Parliament voted against using 5G technology for connected cars. However, across the Atlantic, US officials voiced new support for 5G for connected cars.
Although the situation is still very much in flux, and the outcome decidedly unclear, hanging in the balance are potentially billions of dollars in profit -- not to mention the technological future of the global transportation industry.
At the heart of the issue is what technological language cars should use to talk to each other and to transportation infrastructure like stop lights. On one side, companies including Toyota, Renault and NXP want to use DSRC (Dedicated Short-Range Communications), also called ITS-G5 in Europe, a technology that's based on the IEEE's 802.11p WiFi standard that's been around for almost 20 years. On the other side, companies like Ford, BMW and Qualcomm want to use C-V2X (Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything) technology, which can use either LTE or -- if the 3GPP finishes its standards-setting work -- 5G.
The goal of such technology is lofty: By getting cars to talk to each other and to transportation infrastructure, auto accidents could potentially be reduced or eliminated altogether.
Thus, the European Parliament in April scheduled a vote on the DSRC vs. C-V2X topic. That sparked frenzied lobbying on both sides of the issue. For example, the GSMA's Mats Granryd wrote that a vote for DSRC "fails fundamentally to deliver on our shared goal to make Europe's roads safer and smarter" and "directly undercuts Europe's stated 5G ambitions."
But DSRC supporters argued that C-V2X isn't ready for prime time, and would ultimately cost more. "Cellular connections can provide convenience use cases to consumers who are able to afford the monthly charges for that. It must be evident to all consumers in EU, that the basic safety features are free of additional cellular charges," NXP wrote.
Violeta Bulc, the European commissioner for transport, expanded on that argument in an interview with a European media outlet: "Obviously, they must have some sort of business model in mind since they're fighting for this safety feature so much," she said of C-V2X and 5G proponents. "But I don't think this feature should be for sale. It shouldn't just be a feature for the most expensive cars."
But Strategy Analytics automotive analyst Roger Lanctot fought against the notion that DSRC technology would be free to users. "Nothing is free in the automotive industry. Even adding a lowly rivet to a car creates cost. V2X technology of any kind adds hardware and software cost, liability, testing and validation costs and even weight!" he wrote in a lengthy post on the topic. "There is great profit opportunity in safety applications. These should not be cast out the window and V2X cannot and should not be divorced from the value propositions and business models inherent in 5G connectivity. In fact, 5G cellular technology has its own contribution to make to safety applications including enhanced positioning and, of course, direct vehicle-to-vehicle connections that surpass current WiFi-based in range, latency, and capacity."
Nonetheless, the European Parliament ultimately sided with DSRC supporters, essentially mandating that automobile makers install DSRC in cars for Europe. However, as noted by Strategy Analytics' Lanctot, the vote faces a legal challenge that could add several months of delay before DSRC might ultimately be adopted by the full European Union.
A 5G win in the US
Incredibly, just days after DSRC supporters scored a win in Europe, they suffered a major setback in the US when Toyota announced it canceled its plans, set last year, to install DSRC in all of its US vehicles by 2021. "Although there continues to be general excitement about DSRC and the benefits of widespread deployment among key stakeholders, since our product announcement, we have not seen significant production commitments from other automakers," wrote Toyota -- the world's largest automaker by volume -- in its letter to the FCC, the US government agency in charge of spectrum allocation and telecommunications. "Unfortunately, the cooperative safety benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication will not be fully realized without greater automotive industry commitment to deploy the technology."
Toyota also cited regulatory uncertainty around the DSRC vs. C-V2X question as a reason for its decision, as well as the FCC's ongoing debate over how exactly to use the 5.9GHz band. That's the band that both the European Union and the US government have set aside for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. (If DSRC is the language cars use to talk to each other, 5.9GHz would be the coffee shop where they would meet to chat.)
"Unpredictability around whether DSRC will continue to have access to the entire 5.9GHz band poses a significant challenge to the real-world deployment of a collision avoidance technology," the automaker wrote. "For any company seeking to deploy this safety technology at a mass scale, the chance that DSRC operations could be subject to harmful interference from unlicensed operations or other technologies should they be permitted in the band, that channels used for DSRC could be reallocated after services using those channels have entered the market, or that spectrally-inefficient band fragmentation could impair the ability to expand DSRC services and applications over time creates a substantial and arguably insurmountable risk."
Added Toyota: "For these reasons, at this time, Toyota has decided to pause its [DSRC] deployment."
As Reuters noted, Toyota's action follows the Trump administration's decision not to act on a 2016 recommendation by the U.S. Transportation Department to mandate DSRC in all new vehicles. It also came after Ford said in January it would install C-V2X in all of its new vehicles beginning in 2022.
Just weeks after Toyota's blockbuster announcement, the FCC's chairman announced his intention to take a fresh look at the 5.9GHz band, including potentially reducing the amount of spectrum devoted to vehicle communications -- an action that essential crystalized Toyota's concerns on the matter.
"We should open up a rulemaking proceeding, seek comment on various proposals for the band's future, and use the record that we compile to make a final decision on how the band should be allocated," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a speech this week at the WiFi World Congress trade show.
In his comments, Pai strongly hinted that he prefers C-V2X over DSRC. He said that allocating the full 75MHz of spectrum in the 5.9GHz band for C-V2X merited "thoughtful consideration," but added that he is "quite skeptical" it would be a good idea to mandate DSRC "given the history of and outlook for DSRC."
Pai also said the FCC should consider narrowing the amount of spectrum in the 5.9GHz band for automotive communications so that some portion of it could be allocated to unlicensed uses like WiFi. He also said the FCC should consider allocating the entire 75MHz in the 5.9GHz band for unlicensed use, thereby taking it away from automotive users completely.
"And as we evaluate the future of the 5.9 GHz band, we'll need to consider what the future of automotive safety technology is likely to look like and the spectrum needs of such technologies, including whether they will require specifically dedicated airwaves," Pai said, adding that a Rand study found that opening up the 5.9GHz band for unlicensed uses like WiFi could add between $60 billion and $105 billion annually to the US gross domestic product.
However -- in another indication of the molasses-like speed of US government bureaucracy -- the FCC, just days after Pai's speech, confirmed that it halted its plans to review the 5.9GHz band due to a request from U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. A spokesperson for Chao declined to comment, according to Reuters.
Regardless, lobbyists on either side of the debate are preparing for a fight.
"It is time to move past the regulatory uncertainty that has hung like a cloud for the past six years and provide automakers as well as road operators the environment they need to make our roads safer and save lives," wrote the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a US auto industry advocacy group, in response to Pai's comments. "We welcome the opportunity to present our case to the FCC and look forward to having it considered fairly. It's time to accelerate deployment of these technologies."
"Making additional unlicensed spectrum available, given the enormous economic benefits it will deliver to the country, must remain a central part of US spectrum policy," wrote WifiForward in response to Pai's comments. WifiForward is an advocacy group for the WiFi industry.