Connected vehicles, yes; DSRC, not so much


In January, NHTSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would require new lightweight vehicles in the USA to be equipped with dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), with an implementation period between 2021 and 2023. The system would allow vehicles similarly equipped to communicate via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) technology, and to send drivers warnings of potentially dangerous situations within a 300m radius. Transmitted basic safety messages could warn of a vehicle braking ahead, or detect a car quickly approaching a cross-intersection.

NHTSA has been developing a case for V2V and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) for at least 12 years. As it became clear that the outgoing Obama administration needed to set the mandatory implementation of V2V in motion, NHTSA noticed its proposed rule-making on January 12, 2017. Public comments were due by April 12, and in all, NHTSA received 477 comments from the public on the proposed rules. Comments were received from auto makers, the communications industry, state DOTs and industry associations.

Connected Vehicles is a complicated topic. While many issues emerged from the public comments, a few conclusions are fairly clear.

First, there is broad support for V2V from the commenters. The advantages of connecting vehicles for better safety and mobility, with or without future vehicle automation, is difficult to dismiss. Auto makers and state DOTs are especially supportive of a mandate.

Second, most industry comments are critical of the rule’s dependence on DSRC technology. The comments suggest offering interoperable standards rather than designating DSRC as the design around which all other technologies must conform. NHTSA has been criticized for years about its stubborn cling to DSRC. With other communication alternatives such as cellular advanced LTE and 5G getting closer every day, this rigid government approach could doom DSRC. That’s especially true with other users that are competing for the same spectrum as DSRC.

Third, there is a small part of industry that plainly doesn’t support DSRC, or even a V2V mandate. Mercedes-Benz and Tesla argue for a voluntary approach with an “if-equipped” standard, rather than a requirement for V2V. Both auto makers believe that onboard automation systems will not necessarily require V2V, and data security and privacy concerns are paramount and far from being resolved.

When you add up these comments, the conclusion must be that the DSRC approach to connected vehicles is dying or dead. The technological window for DSRC is closing, and the windows for other communication technologies are quickly opening.

Furthermore, NHTSA has never been able to conjure up a believable case for DSRC’s ability to support mobility applications through V2I connectivity. DSRC still relies on the construction of a new broadband network with roadside radio units to capture and make use of the data thrown off by connected vehicles. That compares to a robust system of existing cellular towers ready to use new LTE or 5G technology.

The time is nearing when NHTSA will have to make a DSRC decision. Every day that goes by makes a commitment to DSRC more difficult. And the opportunity to adopt rules for any type of mandatory connected vehicle technology may have sailed with the Obama administration.

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