OPINION: Obama-Era Car Regulation Is Holding Up The Future of Communications


Deborah Collier Contributor
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As one of the Obama administration’s last-minute “midnight regulations,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued regulations mandating the installation of a nearly 20-year-old technology in all new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2023.

Since 1999, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been holding onto valuable spectrum in the 5.9 GHz range to provide the automotive industry an opportunity to develop a specific vehicle-to-vehicle communications system, known as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), which would potentially enable services such as emergency warning systems.

Development of DSRC was virtually nonexistent until it flickered in March 2017, when General Motors (GM) finally deployed the technology in one vehicle model, the Cadillac CTS. Five months later, in August 2017, GM announced it would be scrapping the CTS after the 2019 model year.

The Mercatus Center of George Mason University wrote to DOT on April 12, 2017, sharing its concerns about the use of DSRC technology for vehicle-to-vehicle communications, including potential cybersecurity threats; technology reliability; and vehicle safety. Other groups also shared their concerns, and the proposed rule is now on hold.

Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are of the opinion that the automotive industry has had more than enough time to use this spectrum band. As noted by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, “It is pure folly to believe that DSRC will ever work as envisioned.” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also determined, “In the nearly twenty years since the FCC allocated this spectrum, autonomous and connected vehicles have largely used beyond dedicated short range communications technology to newer, market-driven alternatives.”

While the development of DSRC technology has been virtually non-existent, many other autonomous innovations in the automotive industry have sprouted, including lane-keeping support systems; blind spot information technology; highway traffic management; and automated parking.

According to the Auto Alliance, automobile manufacturers spend more than $100 billion each year on research and development worldwide and are actively working on new safety and vehicle-to-vehicle communications technologies, including sensors, cameras, and radar-based systems. DSRC technology must be fully utilized in all vehicles (old and new) to be completely functional, rendering existing and future technologies that do not use DSRC useless or duplicative, even if they are more effective.

On April 16 this year, Toyota announced that it would develop and deploy the technology in all its vehicles beginning in 2021. If any other manufacturers follow suit, they would not only be using 20-year-old technology in new vehicles, they would also, according to the Mercatus Center, be increasing the cost of an automobile to consumers, while valuable spectrum that could be used for other purposes continues to be withheld.

Unfortunately, DOT still insists on preserving the 5.9 GHz band for transportation communications despite its potential to support new Wi-Fi applications as deployment of 5G networks accelerates. Other agencies are now including the impact the DSRC mandate would have in their rule making. For example, the Preliminary Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule includes an analysis of the DSRC equipment in its fuel efficiency standards, which would increase a vehicle’s weight by more than three pounds.

Public safety must always be a driving concern for automobile technology. However, when existing integrated technology has already surpassed the technology being mandated for automobiles, the future looks a little less sunny. It is clearly time for DOT and the FCC to agree to repurpose or share this spectrum for other uses.

Deborah Collier (@Dcolliercagw) is technology and telecommunications policy director for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group advocating for greater efficiency in government spending.

 The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.