The Federal Communications Commission voted this week to completely restructure the way cars are going to function in the future in a way that has set them at odds with the Department of Transportation. Basically, more than half of the radio spectrum that’s currently dedicated to cars is going to be reassigned to plenty of other stuff—including WiFi.
The radio waves affected are called vehicle-to-everything, or V2X. Basically, these are the radio waves that allow your car to communicate with the world around you, including other cars, weather, changing road conditions, and more. The reason we have this technology is to improve safety—if your car is able to sense that the car in front of you is suddenly stopping before your human reflexes kick in, that could be key to avoiding an accident.
V2X is still in its very preliminary stages, but the DoT argues that it “undermines innovation in transportation safety”—especially as we approach an era of growing autonomy. The whole premise of a self-driving car is that it can communicate to the other cars around it. You really don’t want those crucial radio waves being reallocated so someone can binge watch The Office on Netflix for the 12th time.
Here’s more from Consumer Reports on the decision:
CR and other safety organizations say that the FCC has not demonstrated how its plan would permit V2X safety applications to still be used securely and effectively on a smaller piece of the spectrum. Ford told the FCC in submitted comments that WiFi signals from nearby channels may interfere with connected cars sending and receiving safety information.
Advocates also say that restricting use of the transportation safety spectrum to just cellular technology would render current DSRC-based V2X systems, and those in development, effectively unusable. Existing V2X services that currently use the reallocated portions of the 5.9-GHz spectrum will have to stop using it within one year, the FCC says.
Basically, if your car uses this technology, you’re going to be kind of screwed. And if you’re an automaker that’s been developing your autonomous car with the expectation that you’ll have these airwaves, you’re also going to be kind of screwed.
There is a pretty solid counterargument. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown an increased need for WiFi connectivity as more people work, attend school, or simply exist at home. There’s an immediate need for the restructuring of our radio waves—but it comes at a cost.
The specific radio waves in question were set aside for vehicle safety development back in 1999, so automakers have had 20 solid years to believe these would be at their disposal. Organizations and automakers have already invested $2.7 billion into using these radio waves; it’s estimated to cost taxpayers another $645 million to renege on all that hard work and install something else.