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Talking Cars Speaking Different Tongues May Make FCC Pick Winner

March 29, 2019, 10:00 AM

The Federal Communications Commission may be forced to take a side in a long-brewing clash among automakers over differing versions of wireless-communications platforms that cars of the future will rely on to avoid collisions.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are planning to install rival vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems in their U.S. vehicles starting in the early 2020s. Only Toyota’s favored platform, dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC, has rights to airwaves regulated by the FCC.

With Ford planning to build a platform called cellular vehicle-to-everything, or C-V2X, into all of its new vehicle models in the U.S. starting in 2022, the FCC is facing pressure to allow Ford and other automakers to use the airwaves for their chosen system instead of DSRC. How the FCC acts may determine whether millions of vehicles manufactured by Toyota, Ford and other automakers in the next decade will all be able to communicate with each other to help prevent accidents and save lives.

“For any of this stuff to actually work and be useful you need a critical mass of vehicles in the field that are all talking the same language,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Navigant Research who focuses on the automotive industry.

Auto Safety Airwaves

The FCC in 1999 set aside a swath of airwaves in the 5.9 gigahertz (GHz) band for DSRC, which had widespread support in the automotive industry.

Years of delay in rolling out DSRC caused some car manufacturers, including Ford, Daimler AG and BMW AG, to sour on DSRC in favor of C-V2X, a newer platform that runs on 4G cellular technology and can be updated for 5G, in contrast to Wi-Fi-based DSRC.

The 5G Automotive Association—a coalition of automakers including Ford, and telecom companies such as Qualcomm Inc.—filed a waiver in November 2018 seeking to carve out a portion of DSRC airwaves for C-V2X operations instead. The FCC is still reviewing the waiver.

The group also plans to petition the FCC in April to ask for broader changes to 5.9 GHz airwaves to support C-V2X, said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director of connected vehicle and services.

C-V2X has greater range than DSRC to detect pedestrians and crashes, and could tap into wireless carriers’ 5G network infrastructure, saving money, Butler said.

“What we’ve discovered as we’ve looked at C-V2X is that we have a technology that is more capable, we believe it is more readily deployable and we believe also takes advantage of where technological trends are going overall as we advance to 5G,” Butler said.

Toyota and other DSRC advocates argue that C-V2X is unproven and would take longer to launch because it’s only been tested for a few years.

“We continue to advocate for DSRC as a mature technology that is ready for the market and that anything the commission does around the spectrum could have implications for that,” said Hilary Cain, Toyota’s director of technology and innovation policy.

Toyota announced plans in April 2018 to start installing DSRC in its Toyota and Lexus vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2021. General Motors Co. is also backing DSRC, and has already outfitted the technology in some Cadillac models.

Wi-Fi Calls

The almost two-decade delay in deploying DSRC has spurred calls from the cable industry and some Washington policymakers to scrap the vehicle safety mandate on the airwaves altogether.

NCTA — The Internet & Television Association, a cable industry trade group, in October 2018 called on the FCC to open up 5.9 GHz airwaves for unlicensed use by Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones, laptops and other devices.

The FCC hasn’t acted on NCTA’s proposal, but it’s won praise from two of the agency’s five commissioners, Republican Michael O’Rielly and Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel. Both have complained that the auto industry hasn’t used the spectrum and have said the FCC should consider repurposing a large amount of DSRC spectrum for Wi-Fi.

That could set off a conflict with the Department of Transportation, which wants to preserve the airwaves for auto safety technologies while currently staying neutral between DSRC and C-V2X.

Potential pushback from the DOT and the auto industry makes it unlikely the FCC will move on the cable industry’s proposal, Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said.

“At the end of the day, faster streaming videos is going to be trumped by fewer dead bodies on the highway,” Scribner said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com; Bernard Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com