Top Democrat: FCC actions are a ‘potential setback’ to autonomous vehicles

Greg Nash

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) on Wednesday sharply criticized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for relocating spectrum in a way that critics have said could hurt the development of autonomous vehicles.

“We’ve got problems with the Federal Communications Commission, and they are impinging upon the bandwidth that we need for vehicle to vehicle communication,” DeFazio told The Hill’s Steve Clemons during a virtual event.

DeFazio’s comments came after the FCC last year split the 5.9 GHz band, previously reserved for vehicle safety communications, between unlicensed spectrum operations, such as WiFi for internet connected devices, and an advanced automobile safety technology.

The bandwidth had previously been reserved since 1999 for communication between vehicles, and was an essential part of the development of self-driving cars.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the FCC, with DeFazio noting that while he had tried to address the issue, his panel does not have oversight of this issue.

“I’ve opposed this bitterly, they are still moving ahead with it. I’ve tried to get an appropriations rider, I’ve tried to get…the committee of jurisdiction to take strong action. They haven’t,” DeFazio said, noting that former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had “objected to what they were doing.”

“They are still plowing ahead, so that is a potential setback and a potential problem,” DeFazio said at The Hill’s “Future of Mobility Summit,” sponsored by Siemens.

DeFazio sent a letter to FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in March expressing his “continued strong opposition” to the agency’s decision to split the 5.9 GHz band, which he also labeled the “Safety Band.”

“Since 1999, the 5.9 GHz band has been reserved for dedicated short-range communications to enable vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications,” DeFazio wrote. “V2X communications and the technologies they will enable—namely connected vehicles—will make our transportation networks smarter, more efficient, and, most importantly, safer.”

“Unfortunately, in its actions to date, the FCC appears more concerned with faster Wi-Fi than transportation safety,” he added.

The FCC approved the relocation of spectrum with all five commissioners either agreeing or concurring in November. Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a statement at the time that less than 1 percent of vehicles on U.S. roads used the spectrum for short-range communications, with automated vehicles instead used V2X communications while WiFi needs had massively increased.

“Life is too short for us to make the mistake of continuing to allow valuable spectrum to lay fallow because of the false promise of a technology that has been stuck in the starting blocks for too many years,” Pai wrote. “We owe it to American consumers to put this spectrum to work for them and to quickly expand the capacity of unlicensed services and modernize transportation safety technology.”

The issue of self-driving cars has been a hotly debated topic on Capitol Hill over the past few years, particularly as states begin to implement their own regulations around the testing and development of autonomous vehicles in the absence of nationwide rules.

The House approved legislation in 2018 to create standards for testing and deployment of these vehicles, but the GOP-controlled Senate failed to take up similar legislation.

Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) have repeatedly attempted to reintroduce legislation in the years since, with Thune saying Wednesday he would attempt to add legislation to the Endless Frontiers Act when it comes to the Senate floor for a vote.

“The time is now to address this issue, and we shouldn’t let that opportunity slip away,” Thune said during a Senate Commerce Committee markup of the Endless Frontiers Act.

Tags Ajit Pai Autonomous vehicles Elaine Chao FCC Gary Peters Jessica Rosenworcel John Thune Peter DeFazio Spectrum
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