The next big decision may have nothing to do with immigration or health care. Instead, it may be about either faster movie downloads or safer roads.
The Federal Communications Commission is reconsidering whether an important slice of the radio spectrum should be offered for expanded Wi-Fi use, or if it should be retained for its originally intended purpose — to allow cars to talk to each other and share vital safety messages that promise to prevent vehicle crashes. Congress set aside part of the 5.9 GHz domain in 1999 to enable intelligent transportation systems using dedicated short-range communication, or DSRC. However, the wireless industry wants the band for augmented entertainment purposes, leaving safety interests to rely upon nascent 5G or other unproven spectrum-sharing technologies.
There is no room for second-guessing the demonstrated life-saving purpose and potential of DSRC. Three points make this case a compelling one.
1. DSRC already has been applied in hundreds of locales to test its efficacy for uses including traffic signal prioritization and traffic management. Experiments in Michigan, Wyoming, New York, Arizona, Florida and other states are already proving DSRC’s virtues. In fact, a national signal phase and timing, or SPaT, challenge has been issued to achieve deployment of DSRC infrastructure with SPaT broadcasts in at least one corridor or network in each of the 50 states by January 2020, with 26 states currently committed. And for anyone saying that 20 years is too long for observation and trial efforts, let’s remember that cellphone development involved more than 20 years of continued refinement before reaching its current level of reliability and quality.
2. DSRC is a mature technology capable of transmitting safety messages about things such as blind spots and collision warnings 10 times per second, meaning it can prevent crashes beginning immediately upon deployment. While 5G holds promise and should be put to use when fully tested and available, it is at least three or more years out from being worthy as a DSRC surrogate.
3. A Rand Corp. study in 2018 cited that opening the 5.9 GHz band to expanded Wi-Fi use would add between $60 billion and $106 billion to U.S. gross domestic product annually. Such an estimate of economic benefit is certainly huge, but it pales in comparison to the $800 billion cost assigned to traffic crashes every year by NHTSA — an immense toll that takes into account medical costs and lost productivity. In the cost/benefit debate, the numbers simply don’t add up in favor of Wi-Fi.
By rolling out its self-driving car in 2014, Google stoked widespread fascination and excitement about what great things are possible with autonomous vehicles. And that’s a good thing. But to fully realize the benefits of autonomous travel requires connectivity. And reliable, high-speed connectivity requires DSRC — or an equivalent that is ready and available today.
The auto industry and government agencies have made immense strides in safety since the first Model T’s rolled out a century ago. Airbags and automatic braking have made cars more secure. Guardrails and asphalt technology have made roads safer. Even so, 40,000 Americans die in crashes every year.
Humans require two or three seconds to respond to a traffic hazard. DSRC can send 20 or 30 safety messages in the same time. Putting DSRC to work tomorrow would help us reduce road deaths by more than half. Toyota and General Motors primed the pump in 2018 by announcing their intent to include DSRC-enabled systems on their cars, but the industry recently has hit the pause button because of a lack of government commitment to preserve the radio spectrum for DSRC application. Understandably, automakers don’t want to be left with the modern-day equivalent of warehouses full of Betamax video recorders.
Let’s move forward to validate the nation’s smart and successful public investment in DSRC and remove the uncertainty that hinders continued investment by the global auto industry. Human lives are riding on this big decision.
This article was originally published in Automotive News, November 5, 2019.