A little-known conflict over the electromagnetic spectrum could shape self-driving cars for years to come. On one side is “an ecosystem of companies” that have developed vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems and the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC), which wants to mandate such systems in all cars and trucks, which together want the Federal Communications Commission to dedicate the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum to such systems. On the other side are WiFi developers and advocates who would like to open parts of that spectrum to WiFi use.
The V2V people say that such systems are essential for improved auto safety and self-driving cars and don’t want to share the spectrum with millions of WiFi users. However, General Motors and Cisco have thrown a monkey wrench into their case with an announcement that they plan to test WiFi for V2V communications.
Volvo and other companies have already shown that WiFi alone can provide adequate V2V communications for platooning cars down a highway. In such platooning, a lead vehicle does the driving and numerous following vehicles, spaced as little as five meters apart, merely mimic the lead vehicle’s speed and direction. Such platooning would obviously greatly increase highway capacities.
There are several reasons why the NHTSC plan is a bad idea. First, new technology makes increasingly effective use of the electromagnetic spectrum, so dedicating a large portion of that spectrum to just one use would be a waste.
Second, there isn’t any need for mandatory V2V communications since we already have significant market penetration of optional V2V. Whenever you look at traffic conditions on Google maps on your smart phone or tablet, you are getting reports from other vehicles. In the future, apps for platooning, accident reports, and eventually even self-driving auto software could be downloadable to your smart phone and connected to your car using BlueTooth or a USB cable.
Related to this is the fact that innovation in the private sector takes place far faster than in the public sector. A national V2V mandate would essentially freeze technology at a particular level, and not necessarily even use the best technology available at the time of the freeze. Certainly, the “ecosystem of companies” that have bet their futures on a national V2V mandate will be happy to live with that technological freeze. No one else should have to.
Finally, private apps will be less susceptible to hacking and government surveillance than government-mandated systems. For one thing, there will probably be competitive apps (Google vs. Apple vs. Microsoft), which would make it more difficult for hackers to attack everyone at once. Moreover, the competition will partly center on resistance to hacking and government surveillance, whereas you know that any software approved by the government will be open to government monitoring and control.
While I strongly support self-driving cars and other technologies that increase both mobility and safety, I don’t support government mandates or controls of those technologies. The U.S. government funded self-driving car research in the 1990s, then pulled the plug in 1998. Since then, other than the DARPA challenges, almost all research has been privately funded and we are better for it as the systems that will go on the market in a few years will be far less expensive than the systems the government was planning. Determining the use of the 5.9 ghz spectrum is only a small part of the self-driving car story, but one that transportation and mobility advocates should follow.