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It’s one of the most important debates in Congress that the general public isn’t paying attention to: How much spectrum should the FCC set aside for connected cars?

At stake: a sweeping impact to hundreds of billions of dollars of government and private investment, the future of the trillion-dollar Internet of things (IoT) marketplace, and thousands of American lives.

In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission allocated 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band to the automotive industry for the purpose of bolstering public safety through deployment of intelligent transportation systems. Senate legislation introduced last year by Senators Marco Rubio and Cory Booker could open up this spectrum to non-automotive companies and users. While automotive trade groups, including the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, are not opposed to a safely shared spectrum, studies determining the feasibility of a shared band are far from complete. Until such studies are complete, should we prioritize these frequencies for connected cars using vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology or for broadband access?

Using V2V connected technology, cars broadcast short-range wireless signals to other cars with information about everything from traveling speed to location. This data gives other cars a better idea of situations that may arise on the road and can serve as an early warning. For example, if you’re driving on a crowded highway behind a truck and your view of other vehicles in front of this truck is obstructed, you may not be able to stop in time if one of these vehicles suddenly slams on its brakes. But with vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology, your car can warn you to brake the second one of the vehicles in front of you touches the brake, helping you avoid an accident.

With over 30,000 fatalities from motor vehicle crashes each year on U.S. roads, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates connected car technology — for which the 5.9 GHz spectrum is essential — could eliminate 80 percent of traffic accidents not involving an impaired driver. NHTSA has estimated that two technologies alone, Intersection Movement Assist and Left Turn Assist, could prevent 1,083 deaths and nearly 600,000 crashes each year. The vision of the future is even more dramatic for some companies: Volvo envisions that by 2020, no person will be killed or seriously injured while driving a new Volvo, and GM has already announced it will debut the industry’s first V2V technology in its 2017 Cadillac CTS. (Disclosure: GM is an indirect NXP customer).

All this shows how sharing the spectrum that has been allocated for V2V communication could negatively impact the ability of vehicles to deliver safety-critical messages in a timely manner.

Some view the spectrum debate as similar to the question of who can use an emergency lane on a freeway. Restricting the lane to emergency vehicles can improve safety, while opening it up to the public can improve commerce.

Advocates of spectrum sharing note that opening the 5.9 GHz range to commercial and other uses addresses congestion in Wi-Fi, particularly in crowded areas like transit hubs and event spaces. The White House, which in 2010 authorized a memorandum to incentivize the sharing of airwaves, reported that Internet access contributed an average of $34 billion annually to the U.S. economy between 2002 and 2013 — a number likely to rise. Clearly, there are major economic incentives for increasing broadband nationwide.

So, should broadband access come at the expense of connected vehicle technology? Spectrum sharing introduces complex, yet-to-be-understood economic and public safety variables. First and foremost, there is the potentially unquantifiable potential for vehicle-to-vehicle technology to save lives. Additionally, V2V and V2I technologies are forecasted to have wide implications to markets and government investments valued in the trillions — from the global Internet of things market to the upkeep of transportation infrastructure across America.

Consider the potential impact of connected vehicles on some of our most costly (and under-reported) domestic issues.

  • The trillion-dollar infrastructure investment challenge: In 2013, The American Society of Civil Engineers graded the nation’s roads and bridges at D and C+, respectively, citing a need to modernize our transit systems and address a growing backlog of overdue maintenance. The price tag? Potentially $1.6 trillion by 2020. Connected cars will surely shape the direction of this investment, whether overhauling how urban planners analyze traffic patterns or applying newly available data to infrastructure upgrades. Moreover, no matter where political winds blow with regards to funding road improvements — taxes, tolls, or “smart road pricing” — connected cars are likely to be a central component of any funding proposal.
  • The economic and societal inefficiencies of traffic congestion and human error: Putting aside the estimated $871 billion annual cost to society of highway crashes, traffic congestion alone costs the U.S. $121 billion each year. While connected cars may not completely eliminate traffic, emerging technologies can optimize the commuting habits that presently cost the average American 38 hours each year stuck in traffic. Connected vehicles’ impact on traffic could further address the excess 2.9 billion gallons of fuel and 56 billion pounds of carbon dioxide attributed every year to unnecessary traffic.

Connected car technology may be a bigger leap forward in transportation safety than seatbelts and airbags — both of which are credited with saving tens of thousands of lives over the past 30 years, especially when used together with other Advanced Driver Assistance Systems such as radar and camera based sensors. Safety technologies, traffic optimization algorithms, and the promise of self-driving vehicles make the broadband discussion a complex one.

With the rapid pace of technological advancement, a shared spectrum solution may well be feasible. The economic benefits of such a solution are without question. However, the burden of proof should be on the ability to share this spectrum without jeopardizing the safety benefits the 5.9 GHz spectrum was originally set aside to protect. Congress must allow for further research before re-allocating the connected car spectrum. With potentially trillions of dollars on the line and life-saving technologies in the balance, we need the debate — and more research into the issue.

For more information, please visit these sites: NHTSA, USDOT, FCC, ITS America, and Wireless Innovation Alliance.

Leland Key is senior director of automotive marketing and sales at NXP.

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