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Autonomous Car Technology Hits a Fork in the Road

By: Bridget Clerkin November 8, 2018
Two major ways cars and the objects around them communicate—dedicated short-range communication and cellular vehicle-to-everything—are fighting for domination in a space where limited government guidance has created a free-for-all battlefield.
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An old axiom implores us to make new friends but keep the old. And while one is silver, the older could be a goldmine for developers of autonomous cars—they just aren’t yet quite sure which one is which.

In other words, the automobile industry is at something of an impasse when it comes to the direction in which their technology should go.

While nearly everyone involved agrees that connected cars and infrastructure are the way of the future, there’s a divide over exactly how our new-age vehicles, street signs, traffic signals, and other roadway structures should communicate—and the schism is only getting deeper.

Auto manufacturers across the world are increasingly finding themselves in one of two camps: supporters of the tried-and-true tech that’s been allowing cars to wirelessly connect for the past two decades; and believers in an emerging system that may have much more potential for commercialized growth.

Still, in order for any driverless car network to succeed, everyone—and everything—involved must be speaking the same language. And the room to facilitate such conversations is finite, bound by the confines of the electromagnetic spectrum itself.

Yet with little-to-no direction provided by the government on which course to take, the industry has effectively built a Radio Tower of Babel—and it may be close to collapsing.

Laying Foundations

Through the development of dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) technology, our vehicles have become chattier over the past 20 years.

The frequencies fly through the air like WiFi signals and can reach any other connected objects within a 300-square-foot range. But even within that relatively small distance, the information they relay can be enormously helpful, including their own speed, location, and road position.

The technology is also being used to keep cars in touch with increasingly intelligent infrastructure, such as roadway signs or traffic signals, which can broadcast even more useful data about weather and road conditions and upcoming hazards or detours.

The NHTSA recently estimated that DSCR technology could help reduce the current roadway accident rate by as much as 80%.

All told, the cache of information not only lets our current cars safely stay the course, but will be essential for helping autonomous cars of the future self-navigate. And it could be crucial for human passengers, as well, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently estimating that DSRC technology could help reduce the current roadway accident rate by as much as 80%.

So strong was the government’s belief in the system that in 2016, the NHTSA floated a proposal to mandate DSRC—or what it called “vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V)—capabilities in all new cars and light trucks by 2021.

Previous administrations had gone as far as reserving a sizable swath of the electromagnetic spectrum specifically for the short-range signals. (The invisible information superhighway, which carries transmissions for everything from cell phones to televisions, is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission [FCC].)

Yet the DSRC system has hit some major roadblocks lately. The 2016 proposal was never passed, and a federal bill on autonomous car regulations, which includes a V2V requirement, has been languishing in the Senate for nearly a year.

In the meantime, engineers have continued to innovate, coming up with another option for wirelessly connecting the roads that many believe has much greater potential.

Turf Battle

The possibilities for the new technology can all be found in its name: C-V2X, or the cellular vehicle-to-everything system.

5GAA- 5 Things You Need to Know About Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) from 5G Automotive Association on Vimeo.

The program is able to accomplish the same feats as V2V but also has the capability to reach much farther distances. And, unlike DSRC, it can utilize cellular networks to relay information.

Proponents say the distinctions make C-V2X more adaptable and much more well-equipped for the future of the automotive world. Such programs could update a vehicle’s operating system directly from the cloud or communicate specifically with any cell phones in the area. And that’s just the beginning.

C-V2X could update a vehicle’s operating system directly from the cloud or communicate specifically with any cell phones in the area.

They would also be more profitable, opening up a number of additional revenue streams through their cellular-based data services.

The newer network has already picked up a number of important fans, including Ford, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, which—together with a spate of communication companies—have formed an advocacy group for the technology called the 5G Automotive Association.

Still, as with any emerging tech, empirical evidence for the system is light, and even supporters of C-V2X have admitted that it would take time for the program to be fully embedded.

Deepening Divide

V2V programs, on the other hand, are market-ready, and in fact already exist in a growing number of cars and government-funded construction projects. To date, the technology has been installed in over 1,000 intersections nationwide, and has been used in state-based infrastructure projects for at least the past decade.

The older model is also not without its boldface-name supporters, including General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagen, which have all made public statements—and a bevy of business moves—in favor of V2V technology.

As the divide grows deeper, companies on both sides have looked to the government for guidance, though the body has likely only muddied the waters, with NHTSA representatives telling the New York Times that the agency was “technology neutral,” though “exploring other technologies” for facilitating connected cars, including the C-V2X option.

Any other option that comes down the pike will have to physically compete with V2V for space in the spectrum—which can only be granted by the FCC. And that agency has been similarly coy about its intentions, telling Toyota reps recently that it was “taking a more modern look” at how to manage the DSRC’s chunk of gigahertz.

Without clear rules dictating the technological battle, however, the whole thing may just be reduced to a screaming match.

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