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For years, many automakers, suppliers and regulators worked to develop standards for V2X communications, with large-scale pilot programs continuing to operate in a number of cities. (Bosch)

Automakers to blame for potential loss of V2X spectrum

The race is on for rights to a significant chunk of the 5.9-GHz spectrum, bandwidth that could be vital for V2X communications.

After years of heavy lobbying from the cable and wireless industry, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is on the verge of reallocating most of the spectrum that had been set aside for intelligent transportation systems including vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications. While various automakers have been vocal in their support of V2X, the industry as a whole has only itself to blame for this development. 

The FCC first allocated 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for ITS (intelligent transportation systems) use 20 years ago. But precious little has been done with that spectrum since then, as other uses of wireless technology have been gobbling up the airwaves. For years, many automakers, suppliers and regulators worked to develop standards for V2X communications and large-scale pilot programs continue to operate in a number of cities including Ann Arbor, Mich., and Tampa, Fla.  

Most of those efforts revolved around WiFi-based dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a proposal to mandate DSRC vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications in the waning days of the Obama Administration. While GM, Toyota and Honda, among others, have all expressed their support for V2X communications, there has been almost no concrete action beyond those pilot tests. 

To date, the only automaker to commercially deploy V2V in the U.S. market is GM on the 2017-2019 Cadillac CTS of which fewer than 50,000 were sold. Toyota launched DSRC on some Japan market models in 2015 but has never brought the technology to the U.S. With so little use of this spectrum, it’s no wonder that other groups have been pushing the FCC to release this spectrum.  

Given FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s demonstrated anti-regulatory stance on issues such as internet neutrality and prison inmate telephone-calling costs, it’s no surprise that he would be inclined to undermine any potential rules around transportation safety. While NHTSA still officially supports maintaining the 5.9 GHz spectrum for ITS applications, it too has done nothing to move forward with enacting the proposed V2V mandate.  

If the automakers that claim to be so supportive of V2X had moved ahead with broader deployments over the last several years, there could potentially be millions of vehicles on the road today sharing basic safety messages and other information. However, having done almost nothing, most of that spectrum is set to be handed over to cable companies for unlicensed WiFi. Of the remaining 30 MHz of spectrum, 20 MHz of it would go to cellular-V2X, with the last 10 MHz possibly retained for DSRC or also assigned to C-V2X.  

In the announcement of the proposed spectrum revisions, Pai called DSRC V2X a “promise unfulfilled” – and he is right to the extent that it has largely gone uncommercialized. However, despite the successes of pilot programs, the industry has largely failed to move forward with commercialization in the U.S. In Europe however, despite a DSRC mandate getting shelved at the last minute earlier this year, Volkswagen has moved ahead and launched the technology as standard on the new Golf with plans to add it to other models as well.  

The auto industry had 20 years to do something with the 5.9 GHz spectrum it was given and sat on its hands. It now seems likely to lose it.  

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