Last month FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced a plan to allow unlicensed use of a 45-megahertz (MHz) chunk of the mid-band spectrum. How is this even close to related to mobility or transportation? In 1999, the FCC dedicated 75 MHz of the 5.9GHz band to vehicle-related communications and transportation safety, specifically to dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). Guess where that 45MHz portion is right now; you only get one try.

That’s right. Aiming for a 40-60 split in favor of unlicensed use, the FCC is cutting into the dedicated DSRC MHz to make room for what Chairman Pai likened to a “teenage phenom”. This reduction of the so-called “safety band” has garnered a healthy mix of responses, with the two opposing ends of the spectrum being vigorous support and scathing disbelief. For example:

“There’s always going to be something new just around the corner. If we’re going to be afraid to take advantage of the technology that’s available today to save lives, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of Utah Department of Transportation

“The FCC is prepared to trade safer roads for more connectivity by giving away much of the 5.9GHz safety spectrum, and it proposes to make such an inexplicable decision in the absence of data. The Commission is prepared to put not just drivers but pedestrians and other vulnerable users, particularly first responders and those in work zones, at grave risk, and for what?”

Shailen Bhatt, President and CEO of ITS America

Let’s take a quick step back. What is actually is the DSRC spectrum? The DSRC spectrum addresses transportation safety via on-board and roadside wireless safety systems allowing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications. Essentially, it wants cars to talk to other cars and to traffic lights. However, the FCC has its sights set on a much larger goal: vehicle-to-everything communications (V2X).

Specifically, the plan proposes going beyond the practice of using short-wave technology, such as radios, in favor of prioritizing V2X using cellular technology (C-V2X), which is incompatible with DSRC.

“If it were a medicine, V2X might be considered a miracle drug capable of slowing down a public-health epidemic of U.S. traffic fatalities that last year numbered more than 36,000.”

Jeff Plungis, ConsumerReports.org

So you might assume that C-V2X tech would be getting a shot in the arm in the form of a 45MHz dedication. However, you’d be wrong. Chairman Pai’s remarks in November announced that the lower 45MHz are for unlicensed use. In particular, this would work toward addressing the ever-increasing demand for WiFi bandwidth. It was also proposed that the remaining 30MHz of the spectrum be dedicated to Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), with 20MHz to C-V2X and the remaining 10MHz potentially left to DSRC. Faster internet and lower chances of being hit by a car while crossing the road? It seems like finally being able to have our cake and eat it, too.

“So moving forward, let’s resist the notion that we have to choose between automotive safety and Wi-Fi. My proposal would do far more for both automotive safety and Wi-Fi than the status quo.”

Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman

But, of course, there are some drawbacks. Critics have pointed to a number of issues that they claim will come from splitting the safety band. For one, what about DSCR? Cities and municipalities may be sent back to square one in terms of smart transportation infrastructure developments and advancements is they focused their efforts on DSRC systems. Additionally, some auto-manufacturers may prefer C-V2X, but a number have already been installing DSCR systems, a potentially unworkable endeavor should this plan be put into action. The proposed plan doesn’t go as far as to kill DSCR, but some argue that it may as well.

The FCC’s concerns and proposed answers are admirable, but I can’t help but wonder how much of it is simply shiny paint covering tired wallpaper. For one, is the FCC’s true motivation actually addressing the lack of movement within the safety band for V2V, V2I, and V2X? Or, is it convenient? Chairman Pai indicated that this proposal came into being when the FCC was looking for contiguous swathes of the spectrum that it could open up for different types of unlicensed operations. While there is no doubt that jump starting transportation-related communications is important, the FCC’s dedication to transportation safety comes across as secondary.

I clearly don’t have answers, but these questions and others will hopefully be addressed as the FCC concludes the notice and comment period for the proposal and the next steps are taken.

One of the most exciting and economically advantageous aspects of autonomous vehicle technology is the ability for cars and heavy trucks to “platoon.” Platooning is a driver-assist technology that allows vehicles to travel in tandem, maintaining a close, constant distance. Imagine trucks are racers in a bicycle or foot race. By drafting closely behind one another, the vehicles reduce their energy (fuel) consumption.

I personally find that large-scale platooning should be the ultimate goal of autonomous vehicle technology; the potential time and fuel savings would be enormous if the highways were filled with vehicles drafting behind one another. Imagine a highway system without rubberneckers, the guy on the highway that floors it, and then slams on the breaks during rush hour, or the “Phantom Traffic Jam.” Imagine an organized “train” of cars and trucks instead, following at a close, but technologically safe distance (between 25 and 75-feet) and at a uniform speed.

This future is more likely to begin on a smaller scale, and in the commercial shipping sector, rather than in the consumer vehicle market. The work has already started with some platooning pilot programs involving heavy trucks.

These programs employ short-range communications technology and advanced driver assistance systems in their testing. The technology creates a seamless interface supporting synchronized actions; however, drivers are still needed to steer and monitor the system. When done with heavy commercial trucks — tractor-trailers, 18-wheelers, or semi-trucks (depending on what area of the country you live in) — the trucks are “coupled” through vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. The V2V technology allows the vehicles to synchronize acceleration, deceleration, and braking to increase efficiency and safety.

The economic incentives for platooning in the freight industry derive from the potential fuel savings, which come from reductions to aerodynamic drag. While both vehicles in a pair of platooning trucks save fuel, the rear vehicle typically saves significantly more. Tests conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory demonstrated average fuel savings up to 6.4 percent for a pair of platooning trucks: a lower amount (up to 5.3 percent) for the lead truck and a higher amount (up to 9.7 percent) for the trailing truck. These numbers varied based on the size of the gap between the two trucks, and the driving speed. The ability to decrease fuel consumption in heavy freight vehicles represents an enormous area to reduce the cost of shipping.

Fuel costs account for roughly one-third of the trucking industries’ cost per mile; a typical heavy-duty freight vehicle incurs between $70,000 and $125,000 in fuel costs each year. Vehicles that reduce their fuel consumption by 6.4 percent would save $4,500 to $8,000 per year. These savings are potentially enormous when extrapolated across the more than 2-million tractor-trailers on the road. The ability to decrease shipping and transportation costs should be a substantial incentive for large shipping companies like Fed Ex, UPS, and Amazon. 

While getting the significant players in the transportation industry is crucial, an estimated 90% of the trucking companies in the U.S. are made up of fleets with six trucks or less, and 97% have fewer than 20. Converting existing truck cabs with the necessary technology could pose a substantial hardship for these small businesses. However, it is projected that owner-operators would recoup their investment in 10-months, and fleet operators would recoup theirs in 18-months. This relatively short period could incentivize even small-scale operators to invest in the technology.

Platooning technology could also help offset the recent spike in the average cost of truck operations. Most of these costs came from increases in driver wages and benefits, likely due to a shortage of long-haul truck drivers. The shortage of drivers is only expected to grow; the combination of long hours, inconsistent schedules, long stretches of solitude, and low pay have increased the turnover rate and disincentivized new drivers from entering the labor market. While the technology is not yet poised to run without drivers, a single truck driver would one day lead a platoon train of autonomous trucks, decreasing the need for drivers in every cab.

My vision of a highway filled with platooning vehicles may not be feasible yet, but with proper investment by businesses, platooning technology could become viable, and cost-effective, within a few years.

A European Commission plan to implement the connected car-specific 802.11p “Wi-Fi” standard for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication was scrapped early July after a committee of the Council of the European Union (which formally represents individual member states’ during the legislative process) rejected it. The standard, also known as ITS-G5 in the EU, operates in the same frequency range as domestic Wi-Fi, now most often deployed under the 802.11n specification.

The reason for this rejection were made clear by the opponents of “Wi-Fi V2V”: telecommunication operators, and consortia of IT equipment and car manufacturers (such as BMW and Qualcomm) would never allow locking out 5G and its ultra-low latency, “vehicle-to-everything” (V2X) solutions. In turn, countries with substantial industrial interest in those sectors (Germany and Finland, to name only two,) opposed the Commission plan.

Yet it appears that Commissioner Bulc had convincing arguments in favor of 802.11p. In her letter to the European Parliament’s members, she stresses that the technology is available now, and can be successfully and quickly implemented, for immediate improvements in road safety. In her view, failure to standardize now means that widespread V2V communication will not happen until the “5G solutions” come around.

5G is a polarizing issue, and information about it is often tainted with various industries’ talking points. It first matters to differentiate 5G as the follow-up on 4G, and 5G as the whole-new-thing-everyone-keeps-talking-about. As the follow up on 4G, 5G is the technology that underpins data delivery to individual cellphones. It operates mostly in higher frequencies than current 4G, higher frequencies which have a lower range and thus require more antennas. That in turn explains why most current cellphone 5G deployments are concentrated in large cities.

The “other” 5G is based on a promise: the higher the frequency, the higher the bandwidth and the lower the latency. Going into the hundreds of GHz, 5G theoretically delivers large bandwidth (in the range of 10 Gbps) in less than 1ms, with the major downside of a proportionally reduced range and ability to penetrate dense materials.

The logical conclusions of these technical limitations is that the high-bandwidth, low-latency 5G, set to revolutionize the “smart”-everything and that managed to gather some excitement will become a reality the day our cities are literally covered with antennas at every street corner, on every lamppost and stop sign. Feasible over decades in cities (with whose money, though?), a V2X world based on a dense mesh of antennas looks wholly unrealistic in lower density areas.

Why does it make sense, then, to kick out a simple, cheap and patent-free solution to V2V communication in favor of a costly and hypothetical V2X?

Follow the money, one would have said: what is key in this debate is understanding the basic economics of 5G. As the deployment goes on, it is those who hold the “Standard Essential Patents” (SEPs) who stand to profit the most. As reported by Nikkei in May 2019, China leads the march with more than a third of SEPs, followed by South Korea, the US, Finland, Sweden and Japan.

If the seat of the V2V standard is already taken by Wi-Fi, that is one less market to recoup the costs of 5G development. It thus does not come as a surprise that Finland was one of the most vocal opponents to the adoption of 802.11p, despite having no car industry – its telecom and IT sector have invested heavily in 5G and are visibly poised to reap the rewards.

Reasonable engineers may disagree on the merits of 802.11p – as the United States’ own experience with DSRC, based on that same standard, shows. Yet, the V2X 5G solutions are nowhere to be seen now, and investing in such solutions was and remains to this day a risky enterprise. Investments required are huge, and one can predict there will be some public money involved at some point to deploy all that infrastructure.

“The automotive industry is now free to choose the best technology to protect road users and drivers” said Lise Fuhr, director general of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) after their win at the EU Council. I would rather say: free to choose the technology that will preserve telcos’ and some automakers’ risky business model. In the meantime, European citizens and taxpayers subsidize that “freedom” with more car accidents and fatalities, not to speak of other monetary costs 5G brings about. The seat will have been kept warm until the day their 5G arrives – if it does – at some point between 2020 and 2025. In the meantime, users will have to satisfy ourselves of with collision radars, parking cameras, cruise control and our good ol’ human senses.

By David Redl

Cite as: David Redl, The Airwaves Meet the Highways
2019 J. L. & Mob. 32.

I applaud and congratulate the University of Michigan for launching the Journal of Law and Mobility. The timing is perfect. The information superhighway is no longer just a clever metaphor. We are living in an era where internet connectivity is a critical part of making transportation safer and more convenient.

Internet connectivity has powered the U.S. and global economies for years now. In the early stages, dial-up connections enabled users to access a vast store of digital information. As the internet and its usage grew, so did the demand for faster broadband speeds. Finally, wireless networks untethered the power of broadband Internet so consumers could have fast access when and where they want it.

We are now seeing technology advances in the automotive sector begin to better align with what has occurred in the communications space. The possibilities for what this means for human mobility are truly exciting. Challenges abound, however, with questions around the security and safety of self-driving vehicles and how to create the infrastructure and policies needed for vehicle connectivity. While many of these will be sorted out by the market, policy levers will also play a role.

In the late 1990s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed to set aside radio frequencies for intelligent transportation systems (ITS), persuaded that emerging advances in communications technologies could be deployed in vehicles to increase safety and help save lives. 1 1. Amendment of Parts 2 and 90 of the Commission’s Rules to Allocate the 5.850-5.925 GHz Band to the Mobile Service for Dedicated Short Range Communications of Intelligent Transportation Services, Report and Order, 14 FCC Rcd. 18221 (Oct. 22, 1999). × Specifically, the FCC allocated the 75 megahertz of spectrum between 5850-5925 MHz (5.9 GHz band) for ITS. 2 2. Id. × The automobile industry’s technological solution was to rely primarily on a reconfiguration of IEEE Wi-Fi standards 3 3. The Working Group for WLAN Standards, IEEE 802.11 Wireless Local Area Networks, http://www.ieee802.org/11/ (last visited Oct. 31, 2018). × suitable for ITS (802.11p) so vehicles could “talk” to one another and to roadside infrastructure. 4 4. Accepted nomenclature for these communications include vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), or more generally vehicle-to-x (V2X). Other applications include vehicle-to-pedestrian. × The FCC in turn incorporated the Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) standards into its service rules for the 5.9 GHz band. 5 5. Amendment of the Commission’s Rules Regarding Dedicated Short-Range Communication Services in the 5.850-5.925 GHz Band (5.9 GHz Band), 19 FCC Rcd. 2458 (Feb. 10, 2004). ×

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), by statute, is the principal advisor to the President of the United States on information and communications policies, including for the use of radiofrequency spectrum. NTIA also is responsible for managing spectrum use by federal government entities. As such, NTIA seeks to ensure that our national use of spectrum is efficient and effective. Over the past two decades, innovations in wireless technologies and bandwidth capacity have completely changed what is possible in connected vehicle technology. 2G wireless evolved to 3G, and then 4G LTE changed the game for mobile broadband. 5G is in the early stages of deployment. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi not only exploded in usage but in its capability and performance. Many vehicles in the market today are equipped with wireless connectivity for diagnostic, navigation and entertainment purposes. Yet DSRC as a technology remains largely unchanged, notwithstanding recent pledges from proponents to update the standard. 6 6. See IEEE Announces Formation of Two New IEEE 802.11 Study Groups, IEEE Standards Association (June 5, 2018), https://standards.ieee.org/news/2018/ieee_802-11_study_groups.html. × This stasis persists despite the technological leaps of advanced driver assistance systems, enhanced by innovations in vehicular radars, sensors and cameras.

This situation is not new or novel as traditional industries continue to grapple with the pace of technological change in the wireless sector.  In fact, the automotive sector has faced the challenge of wireless technological change before, struggling to adapt to the sunset of the first generation of analog wireless networks.  This leads to the question of whether, as some promise, DSRC effectively broadens a vehicle’s situational awareness to beyond line-of-site as the industry creeps toward autonomous driving – or has innovation simply left DSRC behind? The answer is important to the question of whether it makes sense to continue with DSRC for V2X communications.  Regardless of how the question is answered, we must address who should answer it.

One distinction between V2X communications for safety applications and most other communications standards choices is that a fragmented market could have drastic consequences for its effectiveness, given that vehicles must be able to talk to each other in real time for the entire system to work. This is why the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) initially proposed a phased-in mandate of DSRC beginning with cars and light trucks. 7 7. See Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; V2V Communications, 82 Fed. Reg. 3854 (Jan. 12, 2017). ×

This question of whether to mandate DSRC has also been complicated by inclusion in 3GPP standards of a cellular solution (C-V2X), first in Release 14 for 4G/LTE, 8 8. Dino Flore, Initial Cellular V2X Standard Complete, 3GPP A Global Initiative (Sept. 26, 2016), http://www.3gpp.org/news-events/3gpp-news/1798-v2x_r14. The updates to the existing cellular standard are to a device-to-device communications interface known as the PC5, the sidelink at the physical layer, for vehicular use cases addressing high speed and high density scenarios. A dedicated band is used only for V2V communications. × and continuing with Release 15 and especially Release 16 for 5G, targeted for completion in December 2019. 9 9. Release 16, 3GPP: A Global Initiative (July 16, 2018), https://www.3gpp.org/release-16. × It raises the legitimate question of whether leveraging the rapid innovation and evolution in wireless communication technology is the right way to ensure automotive safety technology benefits from the rapid pace of technological change, and what role the federal government should play in answering these questions.

Despite the federal government’s legitimate interest in vehicle safety, as is true in most cases I question whether the federal government should substitute its judgement for that of the market. A possible solution that strikes a balance between legitimate safety needs and technological flexibility are federal performance requirements that maintain technological neutrality.

Moreover, because the spectrum environment has changed drastically since the 1990s many are questioning whether protecting this 75 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for ITS use is prudent. The 5.9 GHz band is adjacent to spectrum used for Wi-Fi 10 10. Table of Frequency Allocations, 47 C.F.R. § 2.106 (2018). × , which makes it unsurprising that some are calling for access to 5.9 GHz spectrum as a Wi-Fi expansion band. Other still question whether V2V safety communications require protected access to all 75 megahertz. NTIA, the FCC, and the Department of Transportation continue to study the feasibility of whether and how this band might be shared between V2V and Wi-Fi or other unlicensed uses and remain committed to both the goal of increased vehicle safety and the goal of maximum spectrum efficiency.

While I am optimistic that wireless technologies will bring a new level of safety to America’s roadways, a number of other policy and legal issues, including user privacy and cybersecurity, will persist as challenges despite being addressed in current solutions. If we are to see the kind of adoption and reliance on V2X safety applications and realize the systemic improvements in safety they portend, Americans must have trust in the security and reliability of these technologies.

The marriage of communications technology with transportation will help define the 21st century, and potentially produce enormous benefits for consumers. A lot of work remains, however, to ensure we have the right laws, regulations and policy frameworks in place to allow private sector innovation to flourish. This forum can play an important role in moving the dialogue forward.

David Redl is the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.