FCC Order Represents One More Step Towards Fully-Autonomous Vehicles

I’ve written on connected and autonomous vehicles in the past, including about an ongoing spectrum fight at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding use of spectrum set aside years ago for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications (specifically, for a technology called DSRC).

The FCC now has revised its rules to allow for new short-range vehicular radars that increasingly will be relied upon for automotive safety. While collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control systems are becoming common, newer systems using short-range radars can provide additional driver assistance such as lane departure warnings, blind spot warnings, and detection of nearby vehicles and “objects,” including pedestrians and bicycles. (As a frequent bike commuter, this writer has an eye on any new technologies that would improve bicycle safety.)

Given the demand for advanced auto safety technologies, the Commission determined that it would remove vehicular radars from the 24 GHz unlicensed bands and transition them to an expanded 76 GHz band (76-81 GHz), as the wider bandwidth is necessary for better accuracy. The FCC also moved the vehicular radar systems from Part 15 (unlicensed) to Part 95 (licensed by rule). The benefits of this “license-by-rule” status is that a party need not go through the process of applying for an FCC license; the license is essentially deemed as granted to all who use FCC-complaint equipment, and the licensee will receive interference protection from other users (unlike Part 15 users who must accept interference).

At the Commission’s meeting during which the rules were adopted, Commissioner O’Rielly stated that he was “hesitant” to allocate any more spectrum for auto safety given the delay by the auto industry in using the 5.9 GHz DSRC allocation. In the DSRC proceeding, Wi-Fi interest groups asked the FCC to allow Wi-Fi to share the spectrum with DSRC, thereby increasing the unlicensed (read: “free”) spectrum available for broadband. The auto industry, for the most part, is loath to give up or share spectrum for which it has been designing technology for well over a decade. The fact that current vehicular radar technologies are already on the market convinced Commissioner O’Rielly to agree to the new rules, even while he questioned the need to use the DSRC spectrum for automotive safety communications. (We here in the CommLawBlog bunker wonder whether the two matters should be conflated, given the very different roles of radar and DSRC in vehicle safety.)

In addition to the rule changes for vehicular radars, the FCC also revised rules for other mmWave radar systems, including those used at airports by aircraft to detect “foreign object debris” (FOD) and other objects on airport runways and grounds that could interfere with aircraft safety. The Commission also expanded the allowable frequency range for this group of mmWave radars to 76-81 GHz and moved them from Part 15 to Part 95.

Finally, the Commission addressed the use of non-vehicular fixed mmWave radar outside of airport facilities, retaining its current restriction on the use of these radars in the 76-81 GHz band. The Commission decided that the record did not contain enough information on whether these fixed radars could co-exist with the burgeoning vehicular radar industry. But it did leave open the possibility that these other radar systems may obtain waivers to operate in the 76-81 GHz band upon a showing that they would not interfere with vehicular radars.

Like other proceedings concerning new technologies, the Commission has set out detailed technical rules and transition dates, which I recommend that anyone looking to enter the U.S. market with mmWave radars review closely.