Automakers and suppliers say a U.S. push to broaden Wi-Fi use could jam accident-prevention technology that may cost as little as $100 per vehicle and save thousands of lives annually.
The Federal Communications Commission next week may propose rules to let new users into airwaves near those allocated since 1999 to developing car-to-car wireless communications. That technology, now being road-tested in Michigan, may be the precursor to self-driving vehicles.
A former U.S. spectrum-policy official said he sees parallels with the conflict over bankrupt satellite provider LightSquared Inc. The company’s proposal to build a wireless broadband network was initially approved by the FCC, then stymied because of evidence its signals would interfere with global-positioning-system navigation gear.
“In a situation like LightSquared, what happened was the FCC got out ahead of itself,” said Gregory Rohde, a former chief of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department arm that oversees federal airwaves use.
“That will continue to happen if they continue to take on major interests that have too much at stake to lose,” Rohde said. “That may be what happens here.”
Trade associations representing automakers including Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., along with suppliers including Delphi Automotive Plc, Denso Corp. and Robert Bosch GmbH, signed a letter being sent today to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski protesting his plans for the new Wi-Fi spectrum.
Supporters of talking-cars technology, who have spent more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars developing it, say opening nearby airwaves to other users may cause interference in an area with no margin for error.
The technology lets cars talk with each other at short range to know when two are approaching an intersection, are about to collide in adjacent lanes or are approaching a vehicle up ahead too quickly. Automakers say the systems could be installed in new cars, at a cost of about $100 a vehicle, or sold as after-market devices.
“We’ve really worked hard,” Scott Belcher, chief executive officer of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a Washington-based group that advocates for transportation safety, said in an interview. “We’re finally at the point where we’re going to see benefits. And we may put it all at risk without knowing the answer. What we fear is a decision gets made without the necessary due diligence.”
Genachowski on Jan. 9 said the agency wants to allow Wi-Fi services in a section of airwaves that already includes similar uses, as well as the experimental auto-industry frequencies. The plan for Wi-Fi, an aerial Internet connection found globally in coffee shops and offices, is part of President Barack Obama’s strategy to expand airwaves sharing to cope with a shortage of frequencies.
“As this spectrum comes on line, we expect it to relieve congested Wi-Fi networks at major hubs like convention centers and airports,” Genachowski said in remarks distributed by e-mail. The FCC is to vote Feb. 20 on his proposal to form rules, according to the meeting’s agenda.
FCC supporters say that airwaves users must adapt and share, by using technologies that can gather intended signals and disregard stray transmissions.
“This is certainly very similar to what happened with LightSquared -- where you are trying to create more opportunity to create spectrum for broadband and GPS neighbors got very nervous,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Washington-based policy group Public Knowledge, said in an interview. “This is typical of what is going on right now with our effort to repurpose the airwaves.”
The type of communication used by vehicle-to-vehicle technology would be useless if interrupted, said Bill Brown, radio manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“The lifesaving value of the connected vehicle program is based on the ability to immediately communicate from sensors on vehicles to roadside and other vehicles’ devices without added delay,” he said in an e-mail. “Fractions of seconds mean the difference between collisions, some life-endangering, and their successful prevention thanks to connected-vehicle wireless communications.”
Connected-vehicle technology is being tested in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on almost 3,000 cars, trucks and buses. The U.S. Transportation Department has spent millions of research dollars developing the technology in partnership with the private sector, and auto-safety regulators may decide by the end of this year whether to require it in new vehicles.
“There’s a great potential here to reduce not only fatalities and injuries but also less severe crashes that can cause a lot of congestion on the highways too,” said Michael Cammisa, safety director for the Association of Global Automakers, whose members include Toyota and Honda Motor Co., both members of a government-industry group developing the technology.
“Those potential benefits might not be realized,” Cammisa said. “We’re concerned about potential for interference if these other devices are also using the same spectrum.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. agency that regulates auto safety, has said that 80 percent of crashes involving drivers who aren’t impaired could be prevented or reduced in severity if vehicles were equipped with these systems.
“We support efforts to identify spectrum that may be utilized to expand Wi-Fi applications,” the auto-industry trade groups said in today’s letter to Genachowski. “But with over 30,000 deaths on our nation’s roads every year, we also believe it is critical that efforts to open up additional spectrum do not come at the expense of revolutionary life-saving technologies.”
The Transportation Department “is aware of the FCC’s proposed action to open up” the spectrum, Karen Aldana, a spokeswoman for NHTSA, part of the Transportation Department, said in an e-mail.
“We look forward to working with our federal partners, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the FCC, to evaluate the impact of spectrum sharing on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication,” she said.
Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment.
Industries hungry for airwaves are watching.
“We’re thrilled the FCC is starting,” Mary Brown, director of government affairs for Internet gear maker Cisco Systems Inc., said in an interview. “It’s very important, particularly for the Wi-Fi industry, to have access to a contiguous block of spectrum.”
Large blocks are needed for Wi-Fi to carry high-definition video and other uses increasingly in demand, Brown said.
Conflicts are probable whenever the FCC moves toward new airwaves assignments, said Feld, of Public Knowledge.
“How do you evaluate whether having cars that can talk to each other is more important than having lots of ubiquitous open Wi-Fi?” Feld said. “The default ought to be shared, and where it’s not shared we ought to have a good reason why we’re not sharing it.”