NHTSA Strongly Endorses Connected Vehicle Technology, But Implementation Questions Remain

By Thomas DeCesar, Edward Fishman, Cliff Rothenstein, and Marty Stern

In a recent announcement, the United States Department of Transportation’s (“DOT”) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) endorsed the future implementation of vehicle-to-vehicle (“V2V”) communication technology in light vehicles (e.g., passenger vehicles and light trucks).  This technology, which is seen by some as the future of vehicle safety, allows vehicles to exchange location and speed information with other vehicles.  This information is processed to provide warnings of driving hazards, or even to automatically stop the vehicle.

In the near term, the practical effect of NHTSA’s decision will be increased interest in and study of V2V technology.  The results from NHTSA’s year-long Safety Pilot model deployment program, which tested V2V devices, will also be released shortly.  More importantly, this decision signals a cautious step over the line from general interest to intent to mandate V2V technology in the future.  NHTSA declined to set a timeline, but it will likely engage in a rulemaking process over the next few years to require V2V technology in new light vehicles.  NHTSA’s hesitancy to commit itself to this mandate may come from a lack of data or real world implementation of the technology, since the agency has historically only required safety features after they gained general acceptance within the automotive industry.

Legal concerns relating to privacy, security, and liability will also pose significant hurdles to the implementation of V2V technology.  Steps must be taken to ensure that the outflow of information will be used for proper purposes and that the technology is equipped with sufficient security measures to prevent improper access by third parties.  Although not mentioned in NHTSA’s press release, liability considerations may also play an important role in V2V implementation.  These risks will have to be understood and adequately managed by companies involved with this technology, including automotive companies, equipment suppliers, and technology providers.

In addition, the implementation of V2V technology may cause continued friction between the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and proponents of unlicensed spectrum use on the one hand, and the DOT and automotive industry on the other.  As currently envisioned, V2V technology will operate using dedicated short-range communications (“DSRC”) over 75 MHz in the 5.9 GHz spectrum band, which also happens to be prime potential territory for unlicensed WiFi use.  The 5.9 GHz spectrum, however, was set aside for V2V communications by the FCC in 1999, but beyond the V2V test program, has not been deployed.  As a result, the FCC, at the direction of Congress in the 2012 Spectrum Act, recently began to consider opening the spectrum up for unlicensed shared broadband and WiFi use to meet predicted future demand, as part of a proceeding to consider allowing unlicensed use in the 5 GHz band.  There is a significant debate over whether the spectrum may be used for DSRC and shared broadband uses, and V2V proponents are concerned with potential interference with vehicle safety communications from such unlicensed use.  Further testing will be required before the issue can be resolved and will likely be prominently featured in the FCC’s 5 GHz proceeding in light of the DOT’s announcement and its upcoming V2V rulemaking.

V2V technology is part of the larger field of intelligent transportation systems (“ITS”).  Broadly speaking, ITS involves the integration of technology and communication devices into vehicles and other transportation infrastructure to improve safety and provide other benefits.  NHTSA’s decision should be seen as a positive step forward for ITS technology in general, and specifically for vehicle-to-infrastructure (“V2I”) technology, which refers to roadside communications infrastructure designed to operate in conjunction with V2V devices. 

The further implementation of ITS technology within U.S. transportation infrastructure will require the cooperation and collaboration of several industries, including the automotive, information technology, and telecommunication sectors.  The approach these industries take with regard to the connected car space, along with public opinion on the advantages and disadvantages of the technology, will be driving forces in the ITS field.  Given the rapid pace of innovation within these industries, it will be important for NHTSA to address compatibility, scaling and future-proofing issues related to V2V and other ITS technologies.  Although NHTSA has offered a strong endorsement of V2V technology with its recent announcement, there are still a number of important questions surrounding ITS technology (including the privacy, security, and liability issues identified above) that must be answered before widespread implementation can occur.

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