Auto industry fears broadened Wi-Fi usage will interfere with accident-prevention technology

Feb 19, 2013

Automakers and suppliers have expressed concern that a proposal from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broaden the spectrum for Wi-Fi could interfere with accident-prevention technology that may cost as little as $100 per vehicle and save thousands of lives annually.

Last month at the International CES, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the commission was moving forward with a plan to open up a big strip of new spectrum for Wi-Fi use. Automakers aren’t against the idea of more unlicensed networks, but they are concerned that devices using those frequencies could likely interfere with the “talking car” networks they plan to launch in the next few years.

As reported by Angela Greiling Keane of Bloomberg, the connected-car technology, which can be installed in new cars at dealerships for the cost of about $100 per vehicle or sold as an aftermarket device, allows cars to talk to each other at short range to know, for example, when two are approaching an intersection, are about to collide in adjacent lanes or are approaching a vehicle up ahead too quickly.

Last week, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) sent a letter sent to Genachowski protesting his plans for the new Wi-Fi spectrum. The letter was signed by trade associations representing automakers including Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., and suppliers Delphi Automotive Plc., Denso Corp. and Robert Bosch GmbH.

“We support efforts to identify spectrum that may be utilized to expand Wi-Fi applications,” the auto industry trade groups said in the letter to Genachowski. “But with over 30,000 deaths on our nation’s roads every year, we also believe it is critical that efforts to open up additional spectrum do not come at the expense of revolutionary life-saving technologies.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. agency that regulates auto safety, has said that 80% of crashes involving drivers who aren’t impaired could be prevented or reduced in severity if vehicles were equipped with these systems.

The connected-vehicle technology, now being road tested on almost 3,000 cars, trucks and buses in Ann Arbor, Mich., could be the precursor to self-driving vehicle.

According to the letter from the ITSA, if the new commercial Wi-Fi signals were to bleed out into the protected Wi-Fi signals of the car network, the safety and transportation management benefits could be compromised, as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars automakers and the government have invested in the technology over more than a decade.

Gregory Rohde, a former chief of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, compared the situation to the conflict endured by bankrupt satellite provider LightSquared Inc. The company’s proposal to build a wireless broadband network was initially approved by the FCC, then stalled because of evidence that its signals would interfere with global-positioning navigation gear.

The FCC will vote on Feb. 20 on Genachowski’s proposal to form rules allowing new users into airwaves near the car-to-car communication swaths, according to the meeting’s agenda.