What’s better for society: enabling cars of the future to drive themselves or ensuring that data-hungry businesses and consumers can access the Web anytime, anywhere?
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That’s the crux of an interesting fight taking place in Washington over whether a valuable set of digital airwaves reserved for connected cars should be freed up to give consumers more access to Web data and video.
Automakers plan to use the spectrum, set aside in 1991, to deploy sophisticated crash-avoidance systems that they say will save thousands of lives and reduce congestion in increasingly crowded cities. Using short-wave signals, vehicles will be able to send and receive electronic data messages about their location, speed and direction of travel. They can also talk to highway sensors and traffic lights to know when a light will turn red, whether there’s a sharp curve ahead and other surface conditions. All of that data can be integrated with advanced safety systems to issue driver warnings and even take evasive action, if needed.
Engineers have successfully tested the technology in real-world conditions near Detroit over the past several years, and government officials are beginning to write rules governing vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
More than 33,000 people are killed and another 2.3 million injured every year on American roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says as many as 80 percent of those crashes could be avoided through vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which is expected to be rolled out over the next decade and leading – eventually – to autonomous cars.
Technology companies and cable providers like Cisco and Comcast, meanwhile, need more wi-fi capacity to handle a massive surge in mobile data traffic. They’ve got their eye on the 5.9 GHz band set aside for the auto industry. It’s up to the Federal Communications Commission to resolve the issue.
Nobody is saying that better access to YouTube videos should take precedence over life-saving technology. But tech companies argue that a network of connected cars is still many years away and the auto industry is barely using its dedicated airwaves. Meanwhile, convention-goers in Las Vegas can’t get a decent Wifi signal.
Dividing that spectrum into thinner slices is one option, but that won’t provide enough bandwidth to satisfy either industry, says Leo McCloskey, senior vice president with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Qualcomm, the largest maker of mobile-phone chips, has proposed a compromise: letting automakers and wifi companies share the contested airwaves. “We just want access to spectrum when they’re not using it,” Mary Brown, Cisco’s Washington-based director of technology and spectrum policy, told Bloomberg.
But sharing digital airwaves may not be feasible. All it takes is one brief signal interruption in a driverless car to cause a potentially deadly accident.
Even TV stations – where safety is not at stake – aren’t sure signal-sharing works. In Los Angeles, two TV stations recently agreed to participate in an experiment to determine if the two stations can share the same airwaves without reducing the quality of their signals for viewers. The channel-sharing test, if successful, could encourage other broadcasters to do the same, allowing the FCC to reclaim valuable spectrum and auction it off to wireless companies.
Automakers aren’t budging until they do more testing. “There needs to be more analysis before anybody gets into that spectrum,” Michael Robinson, General Motors’ vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, told Bloomberg. “A lot more research has to be done to assure us all we’re not going to have interference. We don’t what to jeopardize that.”
At least FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has vowed to put safety first. He wants assurances there would be no interference in vehicle-to-vehicle communications if expanded Wi-Fi use is allowed on the 5.9 MHz band. It could take up to a year before the question is resolved.