John Paré tells the story of his first trip in an autonomous vehicle. As Executive Director of Advocacy and Policy for the National Federation of the Blind, Paré knows that AVs will offer freedom and mobility to the visually impaired. As he rode along with an engineer, he felt safe and comfortable. The car drove itself admirably. Then they hit a glitch. Halfway through the demo, the car moved into to the left lane to make a U-turn. And there it sat. A delivery van had pulled up in the middle lane alongside. The car’s sensors, the engineer explained, wouldn’t move because the van blocked its view of oncoming traffic. It was, in a word, blinded.
Cars can’t drive themselves, but they can talk to one another. (Image: Getty Images)
Eventually, the van moved off and the AV went on its way. What would have happened though if the van had stayed put, perhaps double parked? I imagine poor Mr. Paré still out there awaiting rescue because of a simple obstruction. More seriously, I imagine a small child hidden between two parked cars about to dart into the road. No matter how vigilant its algorithm and how powerful its sensors, by the time the car sees the kid, it will be too late.
Letting Blind Cars See
But what if a chip embedded in that hidden child’s sneakers could talk to the vehicle? Unlike fully autonomous vehicles, which remain just over the horizon, the technology to let vehicles communicate — known as V2X — has been around for 20 years. It’s been tested, validated, and deployed in a form known as Dedicated Short-Range Communications. DSRC is a fancy term for what amounts a souped-up version of the walkie-talkies kids play with. DSRC devices broadcast basic safety messages, ten times a second, to a distance of up to 500 yards. They communicate vehicle speed, location, and events such as hard braking. Elements of the road infrastructure can converse with cars as well. “I’m about to turn red,” a stale green traffic signal might warn. The U.S. Department of Transportation says DSRC will reduce unimpaired vehicle crashes by 80 percent. That safety benefit accrues even if AVs never arrive.
The Federal Communications Commission laid the groundwork for DSRC two decades ago. In 2014, NHTSA proposed making connected vehicle technology standard in all new cars by 2023. Automakers generally were on board.
NHTSA Administrator David Friedman (right) and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced DSRC back in 2014. (Photo: Getty Images)
By the end of 2018, some 3,000 DSRC vehicles were roaming the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. The Wyoming DOT has installed DSRC along 400 miles of I-80. Roadside units communicate with DSRC-equipped tractor trailers to provide situational awareness and warnings of impending collisions. The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority has equipped 1,600 cars and 10 buses along with 40 roadside units to reduce the rear-end crashes that plague its roads with rush-hour backups. DSRC is even helping New York City achieve its Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic deaths. Perhaps the most interesting application in the city’s multifaceted pilot program aims to assist blind pedestrians. A DSRC-equipped traffic signal can talk to a blind person through their smart phone and tell them when the crosswalk is clear. In 2019, GM began equipping some Cadillac models with DSRC. The VW Golf, which about half a million units Europe, has DSRC for 2020. Toyota has sold well over 100,000 vehicles with DSRC and had planned to begin U.S. sales in 2021.
Volkwagen has added DSRC to its 2020 Golf for the European market. (Photo: Volkswagen)
FCC throws DSRC under the bus
Then the FCC and its chairman Ajit Pai threw Toyota and the entire DSRC project under the bus. The FCC rules that fenced off a piece of radio real estate for DSRC remain in effect for now. Only licensed safety broadcasts can occupy this space, known as the “Safety Band.” But right next door to the Safety Band, the FCC plotted out radio spectrum for unlicensed WiFi devices. Coffee shop and airliner WiFi – even your personal smartphone hot spot – operate in this unlicensed space. It gets overcrowded and congested when everyone jumps on, but it functions well enough for web surfing at Starbucks. With the imminent arrival of 5G, cellular carriers want more unlicensed space to stream infotainment and other data into cars. To meet this need, the FCC proposes tearing down that fence to let unlicensed WiFi roam free. DSRC will be left with a small, likely unworkable, parcel.
Good fences make good neighbors though. Tear this one down – studies have already shown – and unlicensed WiFi will create congestion and interfere with DSRC. “Of course, I love to stream my favorite team in ultra-wide HD while I walk down the street,” says John Kenney Director and Senior Principal Researcher at Toyota InfoTech Labs, “But if it wipes out our ability to keep nearby cars from crashing into each other, or into pedestrians, or into bicyclists. We say, no. An emphatic no. The FCC’s proposal, he says, “Is like giving a permit for an outdoor rock concert in a hospital quiet zone.”
Pai, the telecoms companies, and even some automakers argue that 5G cellular is a better technology for safety messages in any case. They call their version Cellular V2X. But 5G does not yet exist. Once it does, it will require a decade of testing and rule making before it can be deployed for connected vehicle safety. Interference isn’t a problem if you want to shop Amazon at 30,000 feet. But when safety-critical signals don’t get through, people die.
The Bottom Line
Qualcomm and other tech companies are pushing Cellular V2X. (Image: Qualcomm)
Verizon, Qualcomm, Samsung, Nokia, Intel, Comcast, the rest of the telecoms industry want to monetize the DSRC spectrum. Alongside the National Federation of the Blind stand Toyota, GM, and Volkswagen. The AAA, American Trucking Association, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Association of Global Automakers, Intelligent Transportation Society of America, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, indeed every organization concerned with traffic safety wants the DSRC fence to remain where it is. The USDOT, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and federally supported researchers have all spoken about the urgency of deploying DSRC. In 2014, NHTSA proposed requiring that all new cars be equipped with DSRC by 2023.
It is possible, though unlikely, that public comments in response to the FCC proposal will sway the commissioners. The proposal might even be withdrawn. Nevertheless, simply by proposing a change, the FCC has injected uncertainty. Even if the NHTSA requirement magically reappeared tomorrow, we would be seven years behind schedule. According to a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, 100,000 deaths and seven million serious injuries will occur during those seven years. Automakers are willing to implement DSRC, but won’t do so without firm federal rules. Until the feds impose a standard, driverless cars will forever be blinded by cornfields, buildings, parked cars, and delivery vans that just won’t get out of the way.