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Connected Cars are Coming. Quickly.

One of the highlights at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the parade of new connected vehicle technologies.  Automakers and their suppliers rolled out a number of innovative capabilities that promise to shape the next generation of driving, make transportation safer and more efficient, revitalize our cities, and reduce air pollution.  Often lost amidst the “oohs” and “ahhs” these new capabilities inspire, however, is their dependence on radio spectrum and the policies that govern its use.

The new connected vehicle capabilities come in decidedly different flavors.  Some, for example, seek to enhance the automobile user’s experience.  Chrysler’s Portal is an all-electric vehicle that customizes the in-vehicle experience using biometrics and facial recognition, allows occupants to listen to their own music, and has a “community” screen for content sharing.  Honda’s NeuV includes artificial intelligence, can converse with passengers, and allows owners to rent out their cars when they are not in use.  And BMW’s HoloActive Touch replaces the vehicle dashboard with a floating holograph display that responds to human gestures.

Others seek to reduce or eliminate the need for a human automobile “operator” – at least in the traditional sense.  For example, the Portal and NeuV are partially autonomous vehicles, which allows them to operate on their own as long as a human is available to intervene.  By contrast, Ford reiterated its intent to put a large number of fully autonomous vehicles – vehicles without pedals or steering wheels – on the road by 2021.  And NVIDIA unveiled a new platform for autonomous vehicles, DRIVE PX 2, which features machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities and can process 24 trillion deep learning operations per second.

Most of these capabilities depend on spectrum.  Take Google’s self-driving car, for instance.  It relies on vehicle-resident technologies, such as radar and lidar, to gather information about its surroundings and “see” where it is going.  Radar and lidar require spectrum and, in the U.S., must adhere to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules.  The FCC currently allows vehicular radar to operate on the 76-77 GHz band.  In 2015, the FCC recognized vehicular radar’s growing role by proposing to expand the band to 76-81 GHz.  This would also help harmonize the FCC’s rules with international rules created for vehicular radar at the 2015 World Radio Conference, making it easier and cheaper to sell and operate the same equipment across the globe.

Another, potentially complementary technology is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications.  One of our Uber drivers at CES explained that “self-driving cars sound great, but what we really need are cars that talk to each other.”  That is what V2V is all about.  It is part of a family of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) that allow cars to talk to each other, to roadway infrastructure (V2I), and to pedestrians (V2P).  V2V can warn cars in advance that they are approaching other cars at an intersection, whereas vehicle-resident technologies like radar and lidar might not allow the cars to see each other until it is too late.

Like vehicular radar, V2V requires spectrum.  The FCC has reserved 75 MHz (the 5.9 GHz band) for V2V and other ITS applications.  The automobile industry is currently developing, testing, and starting to deploy such applications.  For its part, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attempted to encourage V2V deployment last month by proposing to require V2V capabilities in new cars and trucks.  Meanwhile, the FCC is testing sharing proposals to see if unlicensed Wi-Fi technologies can share the 5.9 GHz band with V2V and other ITS technologies without interfering with those safety systems.

Mark Fields, Ford’s President and Chief Executive Officer, projects that connected vehicles will have as profound an impact on how we work, play, and travel as the changes wrought by Henry Ford more than a century ago.  He may be right, especially if sound spectrum policies encourage continued innovation and deployment.  Judging by the technologies on display this year at CES, it could be an exciting ride.