The FCC can save lives on roadways

The FCC can save lives on roadways
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As Memorial Day weekend approaches, most people are making plans to mark the unofficial start of summer and remembering those who gave their lives while serving in the armed forces. That’s what the holiday should be about.

What it should not be about is wondering how many people will die in car crashes over the first of summer’s long weekends. It’s unacceptable that we lose more than 100 people every day on U.S. roadways when technologies exist that can mitigate or eliminate a vast majority of these tragedies.  

Vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicle-to-pedestrian, collectively referred to as vehicle-to-everything or V2X technologies, have the potential to save lives, reduce crashes, increase mobility, and move toward a more sustainable transportation system. They rely on dedicated spectrum — known as the 5.9 GHz band — to ensure uninterrupted high-speed communications.

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While the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been clear about the need to preserve the 5.9GHz spectrum for life-saving V2X technologies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is sending signals about taking the band away.

Speaking as someone who was responsible for road systems in two states, that would be a disaster.

We have engineered a lot of safety into cars, such as crumple zones, airbags, and automatic emergency braking. We have also engineered as much safety as we can into our roads. If you drive from New York City to Los Angeles, you will see clear zones and signs that break away throughout the interstate system. Even with all these safety advances, we still lose nearly 40,000 people every year.

The next frontier of reducing fatalities is having vehicles communicate with one another, with the roadways, and with those on or in the roadways — pedestrians and cyclists. However, for the past several years, there has been a lot of debate about which technology to deploy. 

State and local agencies have invested in Dedicated Short-Range Communication technology, which is in use in many areas of the country and is found as a standard in a majority of states. Another recently introduced technology, Cellular V2X, known as CV2X, is being deployed in a handful of states. Road agencies, trying to read the tea leaves, have deployed both technologies in the hope that the auto industry will begin deploying V2X in cars en masse by 2021-2022. Given the regulatory uncertainty around the underlying 5.9GHz spectrum for transportation safety critical communications, that investment of taxpayer dollars remains stranded.

It is time to move past such regulatory uncertainty and provide automakers and road operators an environment they need to make our roads safer and save lives.

There are some who point out that reallocating spectrum would provide economic benefits. I’m sure this is true; spectrum is very valuable, but how can you balance that against the human toll? We aren’t making a dent in the number of fatalities, and V2X communications is the best tool in our toolbox to start reducing this epidemic. 

Congress directed the FCC to test whether unlicensed devices could interfere with safety critical communications in the 5.9GHz band. We are open to sharing the band, provided the testing is completed. What we can’t have is a vicious cycle in which uncertainty about regulation continues to freeze the market for new automotive technology. The uncertainty of whether the FCC will continue down the path of “talking cars” or reallocate the spectrum for WiFi freezes the auto industry and makes companies reticent to commit to model year deployments, and that uncertainty, though understandable, is cited by WiFi advocates as reasons to reallocate the spectrum. 

It’s time for regulators to commit to maintaining the spectrum for V2X communications so that the industry can accelerate deployment of these life-saving technologies. We all want a future in which everyone who drives on our roads over Memorial Day weekend — and all other holidays — makes it home safely.

Shailen Bhatt is president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. He was previously executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation and secretary of Transportation in Delaware. Follow him on Twitter @Bhattman_ITSA