Everyone wants better WiFi. It’s an easy thing for people to get behind, particularly legislators. But if a bi-partisan bill reintroduced by two Senators makes it into law, it could have a disastrous affects on one of the next great safety innovations.

Senate Bill 424, the Wi-Fi Innovation Act, is the latest attempt by U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) to expand unlicensed airwaves for wireless communications. It’s the second time the two legislators have gotten together on the same bill, crossing party lines in an attempt to free up spectrum in the name of “innovation” and “economic growth.”

The problem is the spectrum the two Senators are trying to give away has been designated for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, allowing cars to talk to each other, telling drivers about everything from abrupt braking to a crash up ahead.

NHTSA has been investigating and developing the technology for over a decade, investing more than half a billion dollars and estimating that over 1,000 lives a year could be saved and prevent up to 80 percent of crashes once it’s widely adopted.

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Dr. Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, has been leading UMTRI’s research for the past five years and is petitioning Congress not to pass the bill citing fears of interference between the WiFi signals of phones and computers and V2V systems.

“Our concern is that any other traffic within that spectrum could potentially block one of these important signals,” says Dr. Sweatman. “We don’t want to be in a position where some other use of the spectrum for transmitting a movie or something, is going to have to be stopped so that our signal can get through.”

Part of the Senator’s bill would investigate whether the interference would be an issue on the 5.9 GHz spectrum that’s proposed to be freed up, and newer wireless chips can “listen” into a particular frequency could see if it’s in use. But it’s a risk that neither Senators seem particularly concerned about, devoting a single line to the issue in their joint press release.

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In addition to concern from UMTRI and NHTSA, the National Transportation Safety Board weighed in on the matter over two years ago, saying:

The NTSB is not opposed to spectrum sharing in principle, but the security of preestablished communication frequencies related to transportation safety must first be ensured. Spectrum sharing could put the frequencies at risk of dangerous interference, and much is still unknown about frequency interference when it comes to vast numbers of connected vehicles in motion.

When the bill was first introduced last year, the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers came out against it, and this time around the Intelligent Transportation Society of America is voicing its concern, saying, “this process should be allowed to proceed without arbitrary deadlines, restrictive parameters or political pressure that could influence the outcome.”

The bill has already stalled once and nothing’s come of a similar proposal by the FCC in 2013, but a bi-partisan effort could have the juice necessary to pass.


Contact the author at damon@jalopnik.com.
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