As Google prepares to test its new fleet of 200 driverless cars this month, enthusiasts have speculated about the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The tech giant’s prototypes have not yet achieved the futuristic glamour promised by science fiction movies. The cars are small—they fit only two passengers apiece—and slow—top speed is 25 miles per-hour.
Nevertheless, the “Google Chauffeur” software that powers these vehicles provides a glimpse into the transportation landscape of the near future. Industry experts estimate that automakers employing Chauffeur and its descendants will sell several hundred thousand by 2025 and over ten million by 2035.
Of course, these optimistic projections are highly conditional. The imminence of AVs’ market entrance could be prolonged by any number of factors, not the least of which is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) licensing decisions. Among its chief responsibilities, the FCC is tasked with allocating scarce radio spectrum to those industries and products that use it.
In 2013, the FCC proposed the release of a full 195 Gigahertz (GHz) of spectrum from the 5.9 GHz band to unlicensed national information infrastructure (U-NII) devices, a 35% increase in allocation to unlicensed devices. While this would improve wireless connectivity, it would also take away bandwidth from dedicated short-range communications (DSRCs), channels that cars use to electronically communicate with each other. Because the U-NII designation encompasses such varied objects as Bluetooth sets, smartphones, wireless earphones, building security cards and dozens of other commonplace devices, interference with DSRC waves would likely be frequent and untraceable.
DSCR frequencies are crucial to continued vehicular automation as they enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication. Indeed, cars’ active safety apparatuses already benefit from the use of this portion of spectrum. Adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance and intersection preference features have already proven V2V indispensable on the road. To this end, AV is not so much a distinct technology as an amalgamation of existing V2V features. Though the technological developments are speculative, most industry stakeholders believe that emergent AVs will rely heavily on DSCR to coordinate road space, avoid road hazards and adjust speed to changing conditions. Widespread U-NII interference would obviate these safety features by disrupting the real-time, continuous signal flows between vehicles.
Far more than cool new gadgets, AVs stand to drastically improve driver safety. The statistics are sobering: over 30,000 Americans are killed and a staggering 2.5 million are injured each year year in car crashes. By eliminating human error, AVs would save thousands of lives.
Additionally, AVs will reduce the opportunity cost of daily commutes. Precise coordination with other vehicles could as much as double or even triple existing lane capacity. Left free to their own devices, busy “drivers” could catch up on work, answer emails or watch videos, thereby maximizing both their market productivity and their leisure time.
In an April 1, 2014 statement, the FCC explicitly declined to make a commitment to its reallocation proposal and did “not address the use of U-NII devices into the 5.35-5.47 and 5.85-5.925 GHz bands, pending additional technical analyses of those bands.” As public officials continue to deliberate with the auto and tech industries, they should consider the immense public value of AV development reaching fruition. Reallocating invaluable 5.9 GHz frequency away from DSRC will certainly retard and perhaps even prevent this outcome.