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In what language should self-driving cars communicate with one another?

| | Updated on: Apr 11, 2019

The European Parliament will decide next week whether to approve a law to mandate the use of wi-fi connectivity between cars | Photo Credit: Virginia Mayo

Bloomberg If you’ve bought a new car lately, chances are it has some basic communication skills. One day, cities and highways could be full of self-driving vehicles, all talking directly with one another to coordinate traffic and prevent accidents.

Do they all need to speak the same language? In Europe, lawmakers may be about to make them pick one. The implications and costs for automakers, telecom carriers and equipment makers could be substantial. Hopefully, officials will allow a range of tongues to co-exist while the technology emerges from its infancy.

Wi-fi or not?

The European Parliament will decide next week whether to approve a law to mandate the use of wi-fi connectivity between cars. Were they to reject it, a combination of technologies, including 5G, would be allowed to operate in tandem.

It’s like the battle between VHS and Betamax the duelling 1980s videotape formats — except where the worst-case scenario results in a VHS user getting accidentally rammed by a passing 1.5-tonne Betamax.

The European Commission prefers wi-fi, known for these purposes as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). The body says it can be deployed more quickly and therefore prevent more accidents.

Were lawmakers to be persuaded by the EC’s arguments, a wave of investment would ensue from a range of stakeholders, spanning cities to carmakers, to deploy the system. Traffic lights, toll booths, roundabouts, blind corners and garage doors would all get kitted out with the gear, as would vehicles. Although the standard has been around for some 15 years, very few actually use it to communicate with other cars and trucks.

There are, however, other interests at play. For carmakers, tech and telecom firms, the law is the opening salvo in a battle over as much as $750 billion in additional revenue that McKinsey estimates connected cars will generate annually by 2030. A handful of mass-market carmakers, including Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp, are in the DSRC camp perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they helped formulate the standard. VW has already invested significantly in the solution, and had planned to start putting it into cars this year.

Knowing requirements

If it were simply a question of superior technology, then they would surely reject the law. 5G promises rapid communication of large gobs of data, and can be used for more than just car safety.

Though it isn’t yet widely available, the infrastructure is already on its way for mobile communications and the Internet of Things. The spending to roll out DSRC tools might ultimately prove redundant. And its easy to overstate how quickly the latter can be introduced it takes some time for laws to take effect, and the technology isn’t widespread in cars now. By the time both happen, 5G could already be the prevalent technology.

It’s worth remembering that we are a long way from a time when autonomous cars roam the roads freely. So backing a particular standard would be foolish when the full requirements aren’t yet known. An agnostic approach to regulation is therefore absolutely sensible.

Published on April 11, 2019
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