Crunch time approaches for EU driverless car decision

Written by Martin Banks on 29 October 2018 in News
News

Time is running out for the European Union to decide on the type of standard it should use for the future deployment of driverless cars.

Photo credit: Press Association


Self-driving vehicles are just one of the incredible technologies that will be unlocked by the fifth-generation of wireless data.

At present, Europe is lagging behind both Asia and to a lesser extent the United States in the roll-out of 5G. In fact, it could be 2021 before the 5G data networks are fully up and running in Europe.

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, a fierce debate is currently raging on which standard should prevail.


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The issue is being driven by two technologies, one which is based on the wireless data network, or Wi-Fi.

Major car manufactures like Volkswagen and Renault have been lobbying for the Wi-Fi-based technology option, saying in a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that this has been “sufficiently tested and fully standardized.”

But there is also a strong lobby for the other option, C-V2X, a peer-to-peer technology that can warn vehicles about obstacles that cameras and radars might not reach.

The technology, an abbreviation of the phrase “cellular-vehicle-to-everything”, has already been developed by a slew of tech companies, including in China which, unlike Europe, is already benefitting from 5G connectivity.

“Wi-Fi is a European mobility communication standard and a technology which is sufficiently tested and fully standardised in European government-funded projects”

C-V2X only works with 5G but its proponents say the data it delivers would help drivers avoid mishaps – concerns about the safety of driverless cars were highlighted by a fatal accident by a self-driving Uber vehicle earlier his year – and would also ease traffic congestion, cutting down on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Those backing C-V2X point out that it is already been successfully used in driverless cars in Asia.

CRUCIAL DECISION

While other regions like China and the US are already ahead of the game in this regard, it will soon be decision time for Europe on its preferred technology.

The ruling is vital, not just for the roll-out of driverless cars but also the auto-related infrastructure that goes into their manufacture.

The Munich-based 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) is a consortium of some 70 car companies that helps develop C-V2X and advocates this technology as the way forward. It members include Audi, Daimler, Nissan, Volvo and BMW. The association says C-V2X will improve road safety and help cities manage traffic.

A 5GAA spokesman said, "The European Commission must seize the opportunity now to create space for connected vehicle technology based on LTE-V2X (C-V2X). It will be ready to deploy in 2020 and offers the only genuinely future-proof technology for connected vehicles, enabling more reliable communication between vehicles than ITS G5 - even without mobile network coverage - to improve safety for all road users for the long-term. It also promises better energy efficiency and will be lower cost than ITS G5.”

COMPANIES PILE ON  PRESSURE

The distinction between wireless and C-V2X has been brought into sharper focus with the strongly-worded letter sent to Juncker on 24 September by those auto companies pushing for the Wi-Fi based technology.

The letter, seen by this website, reads, “Our companies are still looking into other suitable technologies and we have not ruled out any future technology.”

But it adds that “Wi-Fi is a European mobility communication standard and a technology which is sufficiently tested and fully standardised in European government-funded projects.”

Wireless, the letter says, is a technology that is “ready to be used to reduce fatalities today”.

The commission itself appears to be currently split on which road to take for driverless cars.

Insiders say that the mobility and transport directorate, headed by Violeta Bulc, advocates the Wi-Fi option.

But the other relevant commission department, the Communications Networks, Content and Technology, led by Andrus Ansip, is said to favour C-V2X.

WHICH SYSTEM WILL THE EU PLUMP FOR?

The commission has insisted that when it comes to driverless vehicles it is “technology-neutral,” favouring neither one option or the other.

But, even with delays in the roll-out of 5G in Europe, all sides say that early deployment is the key for increasing automation on our roads.

The EU sets out the arguments in its draft “Delegated Act”, or Regulation, on future technology standards for driverless vehicles.

The commission draft paper has caused concern for proponents of C-V2X because, they say, it appears to favour the Wi-Fi path.

According to a well-placed source familiar with the issue, the draft leans towards a “rather dated Wi-Fi-based technology at a time when much of the industry is investing huge amounts of money in the 5G-based technology (C-V2X).”

The source added, “The commission promised the legislative framework would be ‘technologically neutral’ but this is not the case with the current Delegated Act. It unfairly favours one technology over another.”

COMPROMISE?

With the ball now in the commission’s court, the French government has moved to speed things up by suggesting a possible compromise.

It has tabled an amendment to the EU’s draft “Delegated Act”, or regulation, on future technology standards for driverless vehicles.

This website has seen a copy of the leaked draft which highlights the ideological split between the two commission DGs.

The French, whose amendment calls for a “level playing field” between technologies, have proposed a six-month extension to the unofficial deadline – the end of this year – for deciding which technology to go with.

This, the French argue, would allow more time to consider a possible third option – mixing both standards.

The idea has already been tested in Colorado, where organisations have been installing equipment that supports both standards.

In Colorado roads have been equipped with wireless routers compatible with Wi-Fi and plans to add C-V2X capabilities later this year. The Colorado Department of Transport also aims to fit 2,500 of its vehicles with C-V2X and Wi-Fi connectivity by the end of 2018.

‘ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM’

Looming over the whole discussion – the “elephant in the room” as it has been described – is whether Europe and its member states are yet fully ready to embrace technology standards pioneered by the Chinese.

Many argue that China, previously seen by the West merely as a source of cheap imports of items such as children’s toys, is now fast emerging as a global leader in the production of high-end, high-tech products.

This includes self-driving cars which have evolved from a lab-based, “technology of the future” to become a reality.

The critical question now is which road the EU will choose to go down before autonomous vehicles really start to hit our highways and byways.

About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

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