Is the Trump administration backing away from mandating the use of Dedicated Short Range Communications technology in new vehicles?

The Associated Press reported that the administration has decided not to pursue a final vehicle-to-vehicle mandate for auto manufacturers to deploy DSRC, citing four anonymous sources, including two auto industry officials who had spoken to both the White House and the Department of Transportation on the issue. The AP noted that the DSRC proposal has moved from the White House Office of Management and Budget’s list of regulations that are actively under consideration, to its long-term agenda.

DSRC (or 802.11p) is a technology that has been a long time coming — the spectrum for vehicle-to-vehicle communications was set aside way back in 1999 but development of the technology has been slow and still isn’t actually in any vehicles. Meanwhile, other players — including the cable industry, Qualcomm and Cisco — have argued at times that the 75 megahertz of spectrum around 5.9 GHz could be better used for wireless services, or at the very least, shared. Automakers don’t want either of those things to happen. As of late last year, there was a proposed rulemaking in progress that would mandate the use of DSRC in all vehicles starting as soon as 2020. Now that mandate could be scuttled.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly responded to the press reports with a signal of willingness to reconsider reallocation of the spectrum:

Others were quick to note that DSRC may not be quite dead yet, depending on the final outcome of the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency rulemaking review that is still ongoing. NHTSA told Ars Technica that no final decision on a DSRC V2V mandate has been made — but given the Trump administration’s goal of reducing overall regulation, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that a DSRC mandate could be scrapped.

This has some major implications for the connected vehicle industry, as well as their technology vendors. For instance, antenna and test company Kathrein just announced this week that it won its first series production order for DSRC-based vehicle-to-x antenna systems, for a North American vehicle manufacturer and that it would be developing antennas at 5.6 GHz over the next few years for a production timeline in 2021. DSRC was also a topic of interest at last week’s Automotive Test Expo in Novi, Mich., and the Intelligent Transportation Systems conference this week. Other conversations are ongoing in terms of international cooperation on the technology.

Scuttling DSRC would almost certainly boost the star of cellular-V2X, though, and make a clearer cellular “5G” use case for autonomous cars. Qualcomm, interestingly, recently introduced V2X chips for the automotive market which support both cellular and DSRC and are expected to be on the market in the second half of 2018.

Several intelligent-automotive groups released a joint statement on the reports that DSRC may not be mandated, saying “If these reports are correct, this change in policy will result in a substantial setback in our nation’s efforts to reduce the number of traffic crashes that result in death or injury.”

“V2V communication is a key technology that is available now that will save lives on our
nation’s roadways,” said John Schroer, Tennessee DOT commissioner and president of the
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). AASHTO said that it is “working with states on a national traffic signal timing and phasing program that heavily
leverages V2V and similar technologies to improve traffic flow and reduce crashes. AASHTO
believes the transportation industry must have V2V available and that we must use every tool
we can to make our vehicles, highways and roads safer.”

Others are arguing in favor of the move, either because it could open up more spectrum, because of privacy and cybersecurity concerns about connected cars, or opposing the idea of government mandating the use of a specific technology in V2X communications.

It’s been nearly a year since the NHTSA rulemaking was announced (December 2016), and comments are apparently still being reviewed — so this will be one to keep an eye on, to see if the industry moves forward with DSRC support without a mandate in place, or if DSRC continues to be in indefinite limbo and the spectrum ultimately ends up on the auction block or re-allocated for unlicensed use.

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