For connected cars, let the best technology win
However, a proposal currently before the U.S. Transportation Department to mandate that all vehicles use a kind of vehicle-to-vehicle technology known as dedicated short-range radio communications, or DSRC, is the wrong approach to this issue. The mandate would hamper development of competing standards that may work better, in addition to creating potential security vulnerabilities.
Technology-specific mandates are always problematic. As a matter of process, bureaucratic decisionmaking is not well-suited to determine which technology is best for a specific need, or whether a need even exists at all. In the case of DSRC, there are technical reasons why other standards for vehicle-to-vehicle communication may prove more popular.
For instance, standards developed by organizations like 3GPP send signals over lower-band spectrum, which travel further and can penetrate obstacles like buildings or trees better than the high-band spectrum allocated for DSRC. These characteristics likely mean the lower-band spectrum options will be cheaper to deploy than DSRC, since the same area can be covered with fewer antennas. This standard already has broad support from tech companies and carmakers like Ford, Rolls-Royce, Audi and BMW. Mandating the use of DSRC, or any specific technology, would be unwise when the market already provides competitive alternatives.
The DSRC mandate also raises security concerns. As security researcher Alex Kreilein notes, adding an interface with computers in other vehicles may improve safety on some counts, but it also creates new vulnerabilities. He argues the DSRC mandate would be especially risky in that it would create a monoculture in which all vehicles use the same technology. Compromising one car could, in fact, compromise all of them.
Kreilein further explains that it is dangerous to concentrate essential safety technology in one identifiable spectrum channel, where it can be more easily targeted by bad actors. We should allow the marketplace to consider and ultimately adopt competing standards using a variety of spectrum bands, rather than forcing all our eggs into the DSRC basket.
Some developers of self-driving vehicle systems are avoiding the security issues associated with vehicle-to-vehicle communications entirely by designing their products to account for their surroundings without directly communicating with other vehicles. These systems use technologies like cameras, LIDAR, radar and sonar to achieve similar awareness of situations, without the additional complications. In the case of these vehicles, any mandate would add unnecessary costs and security vulnerabilities, which would result in higher prices and less safety for consumers.
Spectrum for DSRC has been set aside since 1999, with almost nothing to show for it. Spectrum is a scarce resource and letting it remain underutilized has significant opportunity costs. The particular band allocated to DSRC (5.9 GHz) is adjacent to spectrum currently used for Wi-Fi. With demand for wireless bandwidth, including Wi-Fi, on the rise, the Federal Communications Commission could extend the available bandwidth for Wi-Fi to encompass the spectrum currently set aside for DSRC. While the FCC has been exploring ways to share this band between DSRC and Wi-Fi, we could maximize consumer benefits by abandoning the DSRC mandate and allowing the market to dictate how the spectrum should be used.
Thankfully, the DOT appears to be backing off the proposed mandate, moving it to the less urgent status of “undetermined.” The department should close the proceeding completely to create a level playing field that will allow the best technology to win and allocate spectrum to its most valuable uses.
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