Some things to consider before putting a shiny new car on your wish list

Last year, the “Internet of Things” was the hot topic in tech, and we advised accordingly. This year, much of the buzz centers on connected and autonomous cars.

First up, what do we mean when we talk about “connected cars” and “autonomous cars?” Connected cars will be equipped with technologies that will communicate with sensors on other cars, and also with infrastructure located on streets and highways, with the primary purpose of collision avoidance. A connected car will be able to receive information from a streetlight that a stoplight up ahead will be turning red, for example, or from a car ahead that is braking suddenly. In industry parlance, these communications are referred to as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I). While many newer cars sold today have sensors that can sense objects within 300 feet in certain directions, to help with parking and lane drift for example, the connected car of the future will be able to receive signals from 360 degrees around the car and at least 1,000 feet away, greatly reducing accidents.

Autonomous cars will rely on these technologies, and many others, to allow cars to drive without a person actually in control. While a number of companies have announced that they expect autonomous cars to be available by 2021, and Tesla already has autopilot available, the first autonomous cars most likely will be “semi-autonomous,” as they will require some driver involvement and awareness. The day when your car will be sold without a steering wheel or brake and gas pedals will come much later than your first connected car.

Both connected and autonomous cars require more work from federal regulators, including the FCC and DOT. While the FCC is looking at the issue of spectrum for dedicated short range communications (DSRC), the Department of Transportation (DOT) has two agencies involved:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued proposed rules this week to mandate that light vehicles (under 10,000 lbs.) have V2V technology. The rules would require, by 2023, that new cars have a minimum ability to transmit “basic safety messages,” or BSMs, using DSRC technology. The rulemaking is wide-ranging, looking at related issues such as cybersecurity and privacy, and also interoperability with other non-DSRC technologies. Comments will be due 90 days from publication in the Federal Register.
  • Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration intends to put out a guidance to state and local authorities as to what infrastructure is needed for Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communications.

The DOT’s actions raise the question of what the FCC will do in its pending proceeding, which involves conducting tests to determine whether DSRC can share spectrum with Wi-Fi. Commissioner O’Rielly, who supports Wi-Fi sharing, immediately issued a statement in response to the NHTSA proposal, questioning “whether DSRC will ever live up to expectations” and declaring that the DOT rulemaking should not delay the FCC’s work towards opening at least part of the DSRC band to Wi-Fi. Given that Commissioner O’Rielly’s party is about to take on running the FCC, it will be interesting to see whether the automobile industry can retain the spectrum it needs for DSRC while obtaining final rules from NHTSA in time to implement DSRC. If not, our cars may be connected by other technologies, such as LTE and 5G, being pushed by some manufacturers.

Whether shopping for a car this holiday season or in the near future, keep in mind that we are entering an era where vehicle technology will be very different, fairly soon.

(Blogmeister’s Note: This blog piece is the first in a series of three examining the future of connected cars.)