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DOTs Push Talking Car Snake Oil

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 31, 2018

For nearly 20 years the automobile industry in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation has been working toward the goal of enabling cars to “talk” to each other – broadcasting their location, heading and speed. The stated goal from the earliest days of this effort was to enable wireless communications between vehicles with the goal of preventing collisions.

The effort gave rise to various organizations promoting the concept which gained an international following and secured spectrum in the 5.9Ghz band (in the U.S. and Europe) to support the plan. This vast effort, which by some estimates soaked up $900M in research and development funding (much of it public) in the U.S. alone, nearly reached its objective at the end of the Obama Administration with the publication of a Notice of Proposed Rule Making at the end of 2016.

The NPRM was intended as the final step on the path to initiation of the rule making process which would have led to a mandate – requiring that all new cars be fitted with a device capable of broadcasting location, heading and speed information 10x/second. As we all now know, this rule making process never commenced thanks to a flood of objections and a change in administration.

Today, the slow selling Cadillac CTS is the only car sold in the U.S. equipped with so-called DSRC (dedicated short-range communication) technology and the USDOT is tangled up with the Federal Communications Commission and the cable industry over the use of the 5.9Ghz spectrum.  Caught up in that tangle are the future prospects of DSRC, cellular-based vehicle-to-everything technology (C-V2X) and unlicensed use of the same spectrum for Wi-Fi applications, insisted on by the cable industry.

Frustrated at the impasse, a group of 22 state transportation commissions and Departments of Transportation have sent a letter to USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney calling for the protection and accelerated utilization of the 5.9Ghz spectrum in the U.S. for automotive safety applications.

The operative phrase in the letter, signed by the 22 state organizations, is:

“DSRC communications technology is ready to deploy now.”

There’s just one problem. DSRC is not ready to deploy. The FCC needs to make a determination regarding the sharing of the spectrum in question, which has lain dormant for 20 years in the midst of a massive and growing spectrum shortage. The application for which the state transit officials want to see protection represents a value proposition virtually unknown to consumers and unlikely to save a single human life for another 10-20 years after its deployment were it to come to pass.

This is where the snake oil comes in. DSRC “talking car” technology at its inception will represent nothing more than a location alert broadcast by appropriately equipped cars. For that information to be useful it will have to be received and interpreted by a nearby similarly equipped vehicle.

It so happens that the equipment to broadcast and receive the information is expensive – likely to add hundreds of dollars in cost to the average equipped new car. The fact of the matter is that the mandate requires the broadcast but does not require reception – to say nothing of all of the related user interface and driver distraction issues to be mitigated and managed.

There’s another problem, which is that the mandate is focused on vehicles communicating their location primarily to other vehicles. The state transportation executives are focused mainly on vehicles communicating with infrastructure, such as traffic lights. These V2I – with “i” referring to infrastructure – applications are likely to require a second, no less expensive, radio built into cars.

Suddenly, the talking car proposition is starting to look much more expensive than previously anticipated. But the unraveling of the “ready to deploy” claim doesn’t end there. The USDOT and its DSRC defining partners have yet to resolve the management of the required secure credential management system (SCMS) which will manage the public key infrastructure for connected cars.

It doesn’t sound like much, but an executive from General Motors, the manufacturer of the only car in the U.S. that comes with DSRC technology, said last week at a conference in Washington that, at full deployment, a U.S. SCMS/PKI system would require the creation of 20 certificates/car/week or a total of 260B certs/year – the largest PKI system ever created.

So it’s no minor point.

But more to the point, DSRC technology brings with it the exaggerated claims of its proponents, most motivated by their interest in a share of supportive public funds and cloaked in their concern for public safety. It’s hard to accept the expression of so much enthusiasm for a technology that is neither understood nor demanded by consumers and the crash prevention efficacy of which remains in doubt.

DSRC advocates variously claim the potential for eliminating 80%-90% of all crashes and the related fatalities and injuries. What they are actually referring to is the potential for DSRC to eliminate 82% of “crash types.” But such a feat will only be practical once all cars are equipped and all DSRC systems are integrated with braking systems – a prospect few car makers are prepared to embrace.

The USDOT estimates that DSRC at full deployment could reduce highway fatalities by 1,200/annually. Even a single life saved is a positive, but this is a far cry from the "90% of all crashes" claim. The USDOT also estimates the cost of a fully deployed DSRC system at $108B - makes President Trump's $23B border wall look like a rounding error.

The live's saved claim is the clincher. Sensor-based systems (LiDAR, radar, camera, ultrasonic) are already integrated with vehicle control systems in many cars today and area already saving lives. Convincing car makers, let alone consumers, to rely on a wireless sensor to control vehicle braking is going to take a lot of time and testing post-DSRC-mandate. And it is looking like a mandate is an increasingly far off prospect.

So the letter to the USDOT, FCC and OMB regarding DSRC is DOA. This technology is not ready for deployment and these state-level commissioners and transportation authorities must recognize that they have been marched down the primrose path. Given the delays inherent in the FCC’s spectrum conflict testing and the resulting evaluation and decision making process that will result, the best bet for DSRC will likely be to shift all of the protocols and implementation to the existing wireless cellular infrastructure and hope for the best.

And, please, let’s stop overselling this DSRC snake oil as a life-saving, collision avoiding panacea. It will be helpful, but only as an added layer of prophylaxis to existing sensor-based systems which are proving their value on the road today.

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