Government Should Stay in its Lane on Automated Vehicles
As Rich States, Poor States (the new 11th edition can be found here) shows, states vary greatly in their fiscal health and operations. Fortunately, many states strive to create the right conditions for better fiscal health, actively seeking to best their neighboring states.
That makes sense as fiscal policy is one important factor for attracting industry and thereby providing a stable employment and tax base. But that is not the only factor. Increasingly, various innovation factors are critical to a state’s success.
Access to broadband, previously established innovative companies and a steady local supply of educated workers are also important. So, when the federal government pursues policies that risk a state’s innovative success people take notice. Currently, the US Department of Transportation is driving a 20-year-old automated vehicle plan that would compete against the private sector and is reducing wi-fi availability everywhere.
Twenty years ago, the Federal Communications Commission provided to the Department of Transportation (DoT) a piece of spectrum, the invisible band of airwaves over which wireless communications carry bits of information. For example, a clear band of spectrum is how people receive a car radio signal, a mobile phone call or wi-fi. With this spectrum, the DoT set about creating the “Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC)” and “Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS),” in total a vehicle-to-vehicle communications system.
Over the two decades and with more than $1 billion in taxpayer money wasted nothing has happened, no product or service has been launched. But the government has blocked all efforts for other uses of the spectrum so that it could continue its industrial policy designed to compete with private industry. The time has come to free the free market and unleash innovation.
Over all that time the spectrum being stashed has become increasingly valuable as consumers clamor for more and more wireless everything which requires more uninterrupted spectrum. The DoT spectrum band is situated next to the workhorse spectrum band for wi-fi that is already supporting millions of devices. On the other side of that spectrum is a swath of spectrum likely to soon be added to the wi-fi playing field. At that point, the DoT spectrum will be an island, unable to move or grow. More important for all users of wi-fi, that separation of other blocks of spectrum reduces the playing field for innovation by interrupting a larger piece of spectrum for better wi-fi use.
Maybe worse is the continued government desire to fashion an approach to automated vehicles to compete with the free market. Government is on a path to compete with the dozens and dozens of automated vehicle companies developing and currently testing driverless cars across the country. But that path is a dead end.
The industry has gone a different way on automated vehicles, relying on on-board technologies such as lidar and radar to guide the vehicle rather than wi-fi. One of the key reasons is fairly obvious for anyone who has had a “can you hear me now” moment when using their phones hoping to find a signal — the market is simply not interested in a car that may cease its safety and guidance functions the moment a strong wi-fi signal is lost.
The FCC move to reclaim this asset, to reallocate this precious resource to a productive use, to designate more unlicensed spectrum so that wi-fi can continue to meet the huge demand of consumers. Twenty years is more than long enough. With that move, the federal government will also be out of the business of competing with the free market. Automated vehicles do not need government at the wheel.