DOT chief pushes regulators to keep Wi-Fi safety bandwidth

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao hardened her stance opposing a plan by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to parcel out a portion of wireless spectrum that will be needed for new vehicle safety programs.

The programs, which Chao unveiled at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual convention in Washington on Wednesday, include an initiative to expand data collection on advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) to include 70% of the U.S. automobile market. Chao also announced that her department will invest up to $38 million for a First Responder Safety Technology Pilot Program to equip emergency response vehicles with vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication technology.

“These systems will use the 5.9 Ghz safety band of spectrum that’s currently allocated for use in transportation systems,” Chao told TRB attendees. However, “We believe as I know you do, that it’s very important to retain this bandwidth for its purpose, and [DOT] is actively advocating for the FCC to do the same. These safety initiatives will make a difference in saving lives and help prevent injuries among first responders and all road users.”

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), a mobility research group, backed Chao’s remarks. “It is unacceptable that we continue to lose 36,000 people every year, particularly when V2X technologies can prevent a vast majority of these tragedies,” the group said in a statement.

“In 2017, emergency response vehicles were involved in 46,000 crashes, which resulted in nearly 17,000 injuries. It’s time for the [FCC] to stop misleading the public about the impact of its proposal to give away much of the safety spectrum and start prioritizing saving lives.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had talked last year about taking a “fresh look” at the 5.9 GHz band, arguing that much of the capacity in the band had gone unused since it was set aside in 1999. Following a speech in which Pai announced a plan to carve out 45 of the 75 MHz set aside within the band for traffic safety and use it for Wi-Fi cellular service instead, Chao sent a letter to Pai opposing it. The agency voted in December to formally propose the plan anyway, a move that trucking advocacy groups, including the American Trucking Associations, also opposed.

The ADAS data expansion constitutes the second phase of DOT’s Partnership for Analytics Research in Traffic Safety program, a voluntary partnership between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the automobile industry. According to DOT, results from phase two will help researchers assess the effectiveness of these safety systems, which include Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Keep Assist.