A red-and-white metro bus on the streets of Salt Lake City
This Salt Lake City bus is on time more often because of the benefits of DSRC, or short-range vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

SALT LAKE CITY—A red-and-white metro bus heads north along Redwood Road, a main artery and busy stretch of suburban strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and auto dealerships. Out of the right window on this sunny day, the towering Wasatch Mountains loom over the city skyline. 

Behind the bus driver’s head, a metal box about the size of a briefcase is affixed to a divider. Inside, a radio and Linux computer send signals to a smart traffic light down the road that the bus is running late. After some quick calculations that also take into account data streamed to it about local traffic patterns, the system decides it’s safe to hold the green light a few seconds longer so that the bus can get back on schedule. 

The high-tech traffic drama—playing out over the airwaves at certain Salt Lake City intersections and nearly 100 other test sites around the country—has meant improved bus times in Salt Lake City on what was once the city’s most chronically behind-schedule route. The positive results, evident in Utah and at other sites also testing short-range radio vehicle communication, could represent a revolution in highway safety, as regulators and automakers map out the near-future of smart transportation infrastructure.

But last month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai laid out a plan that would reallocate spectrum necessary for the technology to work. That move would all but kill the short-range-radio approach, safety advocates say, potentially sending local municipalities such as Salt Lake City back to square one on developing and testing a viable technology. That could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded local investments into smart traffic lights and other technology would be wasted, according to state officials. The FCC ruling would favor a competing technology based on localized 5G cellular technology as the main backbone for future direct communication between vehicles and infrastructure, pedestrians, or other road users. The communication scheme is often called vehicle-to-everything, or V2X. 

More on Car Safety

The first FCC hearings on the plan are Thursday. Reworking the V2X airwaves won’t be final until after several months or even a year of public comment and analysis. The final shape of the plan is hard to predict because there is strong opposition from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The final calls on how the reserved spectrum might be divided among competing interests may ultimately rest with the White House. 

“This was going to be the next seat belt or airbag in terms of saving lives,” says David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, who was a senior official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2014, when the agency proposed moving forward with V2X regulations. “You’re talking thousands of lives saved a year. You’re talking about the ability to revolutionize the way safety could be done on cars. It opens the door to safer self-driving cars. It opens the door to cars communicating so they can effectively look around corners and through buildings.” 

The Promise of V2X

As a broad concept, V2X technology is about much more than bus schedules and traffic flow. The vision is simple: If more vehicles start communicating with each other and smart infrastructure, such as traffic lights, lots of crashes could be avoided. A car could warn its driver to stop before approaching an intersection because a distracted driver is about to run a red light. There could be alerts on the dashboard about hard-to-see pedestrians or bicyclists. Cars could even apply the brakes automatically to avoid hitting another car out of sight behind a building but still heading too fast toward an intersection. V2X could enable ambulances to get to the hospital with the extra minutes needed to save someone’s life. That’s only a fraction of the examples cited by local officials, safety groups, and companies, such as Toyota, that would like to see the technology rolled out more broadly.

If it were a medicine, V2X might be considered a miracle drug capable of slowing down a public-health epidemic of U.S. traffic fatalities that last year numbered more than 36,000.

But creating such a web of transportation interconnectivity would require major commitments from government and the auto industry, including substantial investments in vehicle production and smart roadway infrastructure. 

V2X also needs a big chunk of public airwaves, which the FCC reserved in 1999 as the so-called safety spectrum for this smart-vehicle communication. Two decades later, competing interests want the airwaves opened up for WiFi and other profitable uses.

Traffic monitor in control room.
A monitor in the Utah Department of Transportation control room in Salt Lake City shows real-time traffic at a V2X-connected intersection.

New Airwaves Proposal

The FCC’s latest proposal is to take more than half of the reserved V2X airwaves to repurpose for WiFi use. The transportation industry hasn’t implemented the existing radio communications technology quickly enough, Pai argued in a November speech, leaving the spectrum unused and “lying largely fallow for two decades.” 

Of the channels remaining to be used for safety, only one might be available to the radio transmitters currently being used in Utah and at other existing test sites. Of the remaining 30 MHz of V2X spectrum, two-thirds would be set aside for a new, unproven cellular V2X technology preferred by some automakers. 

State governments, the U.S. DOT, safety advocates, and some automakers have been in full-throated protest since Pai unveiled his plan. They say it endangers the backbone of a revolutionary safety communications system that would save lives. 

The FCC’s plan “jeopardizes the significant transportation safety benefits that the allocation of this band was meant to foster,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a Nov. 20 letter to Pai.

How We Got Here

For the past five years, in particular, the building out of vehicle-to-vehicle communication has been mired in bureaucratic infighting among federal agencies over how best to use dedicated public airwaves. 

It also has been a fight between the tech industry, which has been pushing for more airwaves to expand lucrative WiFi-based services, and the auto industry, which has been painstakingly testing V2X. 

And more recently, there has been a fight within the fight as different automakers line up behind two different, competing V2X communication technologies.

One group, led by Toyota and GM, have been using radio transmitters called Dedicated Short Range Communications, or DSRC—the kind on the Salt Lake City buses. They prefer the short-wave technology because it has been proved to be effective over several decades of testing. It’s also already in use in Japan and is being tested throughout Asia and Europe. 

In April 2018, Toyota announced plans to begin installing short-wave hardware on all its U.S. cars beginning in 2021. It backed off earlier this year after being warned by FCC commissioners that its investments might be wasted if the reserved safety spectrum was opened up for other uses. 

Another group, led by Ford Motor Co., is using a different technology that proponents say will better integrate with newer built-in modems on vehicles and take advantage of the coming internet technology known as 5G.

Ford and others say cars are already being equipped with cellular chips that could add V2X capabilities, so there is industry momentum to make it happen even without government regulations. This approach would also save money and ultimately perform better, Ford and other companies say of the cellular technology, often referred to as C-V2X.

Consumer Reports—along with other safety advocates—doesn’t prefer one technology over the other, but we want the quickest action with a proven technology, and in the near future, that means building out a DSRC system.

“By 2025, car buyers should have safety technology that allows their vehicles to talk to one another and the surrounding infrastructure,” says Ethan Douglas, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports in Washington, D.C. “The lifesaving potential of the technology is too great to delay it any further.”

Carlos Braceras, the head of Utah’s Department of Transportation and chairman of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, an influential transportation policy lobbying group, supports DSRC. 

He says the technology is a rare breakthrough that could reduce fatalities and help move us toward everyone’s goal of zero traffic deaths. He also says it would be a key building block for a future with autonomous cars and also points out that it’s a proven technology. 

“There’s always going to be something new just around the corner,” Braceras says. “If we’re going to be afraid to take advantage of the technology that’s available today to save lives, then we’re not doing our jobs.” 

Radio transceiver box on light pole.
A radio transceiver in Salt Lake City. This box receives and transmits messages from Utah's connected buses, relaying traffic information.

So What’s the Holdup?

In CR’s reporting, we found that the V2X vision has stalled for several key reasons, including the need for automakers to have a clear mandate from the federal government before they commit to building vehicles with the necessary short-range-radio hardware onboard. 

Also, the communications technology industry, which has grown dramatically in size and power the past two decades, has been pushing the FCC to unlock the safety spectrum. They tout a 2018 RAND Corporation study that estimates opening it for WiFi and other uses could spark up to $105 billion in new economic activity.

To be sure, there are competing visions and technologies that factor into this debate, including the idea that self-driving vehicles might one day solve the nation’s persistent traffic fatality problem, without the need for a huge public and private investment into V2X technology. And getting a V2X system up and running could end up being a multidecade process—as new vehicles replace older ones—with technological fits and starts along the way.

Even so, many transportation experts, including those at Consumer Reports, believe moving forward as soon as possible with building vehicles and roadway infrastructure with V2X capabilities would save lives and also become an important part of the evolution of self-driving or autonomous cars. The two ideas could and should be enmeshed, CR experts and others say. 

Autonomous vehicles one day could make their own decisions about where to turn and when to stop, but they also could be tied into an extensive web of V2X communications that would make the transportation grid even safer by also using information on traffic and accidents, for example. 

Utah’s ‘Dirty Hands’ Experiment

Utah’s V2X experiment is just one of 87 similar projects that are in place or planned around the country [PDF], in locations as diverse as New York City; Columbus, Ohio; and rural Wyoming. Transportation planners point to the Utah buses as one small example of what’s to come, if powerful forces got behind the idea. 

Officials picked the Redwood Road bus route to demonstrate how V2X could work because it was one of the most behind-schedule bus routes in the city.

“We decided it was time for us to just stop talking about this and get our hands dirty,” said Blaine Leonard, a technology and innovation engineer at the Utah DOT, and one of the riders on the bus when Consumer Reports visited. “Passengers on the bus don’t know there’s a difference. They don’t know about V2X. But everyone benefits if the bus is on time.”

The buses transmit data to traffic signals with real-time data about location, speed, and direction—and whether the bus is on schedule. Twenty-four traffic signals along this particular route can receive those messages. Salt Lake City also has begun to put transmitters on its snowplows to improve road cleaning. 

The experiment is paying off for Salt Lake City, Leonard says. “It’s already improved on-time (bus) performance by 6 percent. That’s a very significant improvement for a transit agency. If the buses are on time, it’s a lot more likely that people will ride them.”

Utah is planning to expand its bus project, but future plans may have to be curtailed if there’s only one DSRC channel available, Leonard says. Radio signals aren’t as reliable if there is too much congestion in a single channel, he says. There’s also the issue of interference from WiFi or C-V2X on the adjacent channels. 

Decades-Old Vision

On-time buses are a benefit, but it’s not the vision laid out 20 years ago, when the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) successfully petitioned the FCC to set aside a portion of over-the-air 5.9 GHz band of spectrum exclusively for connected cars. 

There have been years of painstaking research and testing, including developing a universally readable “basic safety message” for computers to use their calculations. That basic data includes a vehicle’s location, speed, and direction, among other data points. In 2014, the U.S. DOT decided that there had been enough progress to move forward with DSRC. With that technology in place, cars would be equipped to communicate their basic safety messages to the world around them and would become the fail-safe system if human drivers didn’t react fast enough to avoid crashes. The department was expected to adopt a final regulation mandating the equipment within a couple of years. 

The DOT proposed a regulation to mandate DSRC transmitters for V2X in new cars in January 2017, just weeks before President Barack Obama left office, but that plan has been on hold since the current administration took over. 

As V2X languishes, the FCC has been looking for ways to expand WiFi. The slow rollout of V2X has made that reserved part of the spectrum a likely candidate. 

As a result of the uncertainty, GM and Toyota pulled back plans to install DSRC equipment into their vehicles. And Ford has said it’s opting to pursue and develop the 5G-based C-V2X system. Ford says it can save money by using parts already installed in its vehicles, such as modems for connected-car services. Ford also says C-V2X is a superior communications technology. 

Don Butler, a Ford executive who works on V2X, told CR that he believes there’s a business momentum around the 5G-based technology that has not developed around DSRC over two decades. “We’re not waiting for a mandate. Ford saw an opportunity to take advantage of where the technology is headed.”

Consumer Reports wants V2X capability for the nation’s roadways because it could save thousands of lives. We’re not wedded to any particular technological approach, but we value speed of adoption. And right now, DSRC is the only technology that has been validated and is ready to deploy. We want cars to be able to communicate safety information with each other as soon as possible. CR is concerned that regulatory delays—or industry infighting over the technology—could result in years-plus delays, leading to thousands more preventable deaths each year. 

“The worst-case scenario is we continue to lose tens of thousands of lives we don’t need to each year,” Braceras says. “We can stand back and keep asking questions about the technology, but we’re losing lives.” 

Communications Politics

Pai, the FCC chairman, said last month that it was time to revisit the commission’s 1999 decision to set aside airwaves exclusively for short-wave V2X because of the pressing need to expand WiFi. The goal 20 years ago had been to enable “ubiquitous” transportation communication by now, and it hasn’t happened, Pai said. 

By contrast, WiFi, which also was brought to market around 20 years ago, has become “a staple of everyday life,” he said.

The FCC’s mandate is to maximize the potential for public airwaves, including the potential for economic benefits. A clear majority of commissioners also would like to revisit the safety spectrum because of how dramatically technology has changed over the past 20 years. 

“This valuable midband spectrum has been lying largely fallow for two decades,” Pai said. “We are well past the point where American consumers should accept significant additional delays in putting this spectrum to use for them.” 

DOT Secretary Chao has asked the FCC to delay any new rulemaking on the issue. Her agency has a different mandate—almost exclusively to reduce fatalities.

Traffic crashes in the U.S. cost the economy about $800 billion per year, says Friedman, CR’s vice president for advocacy. A successful V2X buildout would bring economic value by reducing the costs of crashes, not to mention the safety benefit of saving lives and preventing injuries, he says. 

Missions and mandates aside, the tech industry has argued for years that automakers have delayed too long. WiFi advocates also argue that V2X could be given another part of the spectrum. But transportation planners say moving V2X would mean going back to the drawing board on validating whether the technology is safe for cars. 

All this regulatory uncertainty has delayed investments by automakers, says Shailen Bhatt, president and CEO of the ITS America, the group that initially petitioned to set aside the safety spectrum. With few cars capable of communicating, states were slow to invest in V2X projects even when the technology was ready, he says.

That changed in recent years, when it looked increasingly like the spectrum would be taken away, says Bhatt, who headed state transportation departments in Colorado and Delaware before joining ITS America. There are dozens of projects representing hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment that will be at risk if the spectrum is lost, he says.

“These investments show that the potential to save lives is real, and changing the rules now will result in a disastrous waste of taxpayer money,” he says. “This is the No. 1 tool in the toolbox for reducing highway fatalities.”

Automakers on the Sideline

When GM announced that it would install DSRC transmitters on the Cadillac CTS in March 2017, it seemed likely to be the first in a line of such announcements. But in the 2½ years since, GM never added another V2X-equipped model, and the CTS is being phased out.

“General Motors led the industry by being the first automaker to bring vehicle-to-vehicle technology to market in our model year 2017 Cadillac CTS and have continued with model years 2018 and 2019,” said GM spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan. “We remain committed to this technology going forward.”

Ginivan declined to comment on GM’s future product plans. 

In April 2018, Toyota announced that every U.S. model would have DSRC equipment by 2021. The move made sense because Toyota and other Japanese automakers already use the technology in Japan. But in April this year, Toyota backed off its pledge, after receiving a letter from two of the FCC’s five commissioners that warned the car company to hold off while the commission was rethinking how to use the V2X airwaves. 

Company officials took those letters as warnings that Toyota might be wasting its investment, and even such a large automaker can’t afford to spend millions of dollars on technology that won’t work, says Hilary Cain, the company’s group manager of technology and innovation policy.

“The FCC proceeding has put a chill on the entire industry,” she says. “There’s a fundamental lack of understanding in the communications world about what it takes to develop and validate an auto-safety technology.” 

Cain says that Toyota is still committed to DSRC but that it can’t move forward until the regulatory questions are resolved. She also says switching the emphasis in the nation to a 5G-based V2X technology could mean more years, even a decade, of testing ahead to see whether it’s a reliable infrastructure.

Ford recently said it would put C-V2X equipment in new models by 2022—making it the only automaker in the U.S. currently committed to installing V2X equipment. It’s using C-V2X because of “inherent advantages of cell technology” that include better range and performance and a lower error rate, says Butler, the Ford executive. Plus, C-V2X is the technology that will be used in China in 2021, the world’s largest auto market, Butler says.

“The safety benefit was absolutely compelling,” Butler says.

Kelly Funkhouser, manager of connected and automated vehicle testing at Consumer Reports, says consumers would benefit from the only technology proved to work today, and that’s DSRC. 

“It’s a proven technology with years of data backing it up. We could be saving lives on our roadways today with a $200 radio put into new cars, “ she says. “The debate over the technology is just wasting time and money with promises of a future that may never exist.”