Deaths from Covid-19 are rightly treated as a tragedy. Fatal road crashes are equally tragic, however. About 36,000 Americans died on the roads in 2019, and 2.7 million were injured. Just as government is working to reduce Covid deaths, it should also do its part to make driving less dangerous.
Yet last November, the Federal Communications Commission made a decision that endangers the lives and well-being of American drivers when it voted to turn over the transportation safety spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band, known as the Safety Band, to high-tech and cable companies for use as unlicensed Wi-Fi. If the FCC under the Biden administration doesn’t reconsider this move, we will see more deaths and injuries on American roads—and a loss of American technological leadership.
Life-saving automotive technology has been deployed in 25 states, and the auto industry has committed to putting such technology in 5 million cars within five years if the Safety Band is preserved. But the system requires radio spectrum (the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum), just as our mobile phones require spectrum, allocated by the FCC.
Using the Safety Band, connected vehicle technology lets cars communicate directly with one another, warning drivers and pedestrians about potential crashes. Devices attached to traffic lights and telephone poles, developed by Continental and other companies, can warn drivers about accidents out of their line of sight. Even cars and pedestrians can be connected, so that drivers could receive warnings before pedestrians step out in front of their cars.
Additional technology connecting vehicles to roadside units, also requiring the Safety Band, would enable traffic to flow more smoothly, reducing accidents, traffic jams, and pollution. Devices attached to ambulances and fire engines would enable them to change traffic lights from red to green as they are speeding toward accidents and fires, preventing accidents with other vehicles. A full bus running behind schedule would also be able to change traffic lights to green.
Companies and investors are not asking for government handouts or subsidies to deploy this technology. They just need to know that the transportation Safety Band will remain available, and that their investments, research, and development will not be rendered worthless.
Unfortunately, in recent years the FCC has consistently signaled plans to give away the Safety Band. The November FCC vote allocated 45 MHz of the 75 MHz of the spectrum reserved by Congress in 1999 for traffic safety. The Commission proposed a plan to use the remaining 30 MHz for transportation safety needs, but this is unworkable due to interference from other spectrum users.
The FCC attempted to justify its decision by arguing that the auto industry was not using the Safety Band—but the FCC itself has impeded its use. When Toyota was planning to install technology in its vehicles in 2018, two FCC commissioners wrote the company a letter warning it not to do so because it might lose the spectrum. And the FCC has failed to approve over 1,000 requests by states for roadside traffic safety units.
The FCC also said that the spectrum had to be sacrificed for the United States to become a leader in 5G, the next-generation wireless technology. The commission did not allocate the Safety Band for 5G, though, but for unlicensed Wi-Fi (the kind that pops up on your phone at the airport or at a restaurant telling you that you can join a network). The FCC had already allocated an additional 1,200 MHz for unlicensed Wi-Fi. The FCC’s action makes it impossible to develop comparable transportation-safety applications for the American consumer.
It will also damage America’s global leadership in transportation technology. Canada, Europe, Australia, and much of Asia have allocated at least 70 MHz in the same 5.9 GHz band for transportation safety. Without the Safety Band, America will become a technological wasteland in this area. Chinese companies would then be free to dominate the transportation-safety market, putting their connected-vehicle technology in cars and intelligent transportation systems around the world. The Wi-Fi Alliance, which lobbied the FCC to give up the transportation safety spectrum, boasts Huawei and more than 100 other Chinese companies as members.
For the sake of American lives and technological leadership, let’s hope that the FCC will reverse course.