Conceptual image of self driving cars communicating.

View from Brussels: Connected cars bash bumpers over new EU rules

Image credit: Dreamstime

A big Wi-Fi vs 5G debate came to a head last week when the European Parliament had to decide which technology to back for connected cars. Wi-Fi won this battle but the war is far from over.

The fight is centred around so-called Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) that are meant to allow cars to ‘talk’ to one another and, mostly, increase road safety.

Information like speed, road positioning and car faults can be communicated between vehicles, allowing on-board software to either alert drivers or take avoiding action.

But the choice of technology that allows this to happen, Wi-Fi or 5G, has split lawmakers, carmakers and telecoms operators.

Telecoms giants and parts of the automotive industry say that cellular tech is “future-proof” and is advantageous because it could operate on existing 4G infrastructure and has a longer range.

Some carmakers like BMW, Daimler and Ford have already attached their colours to the 5G mast, while Volkswagen and Renault have plumped for Wi-Fi.

At the European Parliament’s final sitting last week before it shut up shop for continent-wide elections in May, lawmakers were asked to either support or nix a proposal from the European Commission to standardise the connected cars framework.

MEPs ended up narrowly supporting the Commission but it’s only a pit-stop in the race to get the new rules done and dusted.

The EU executive’s plan backs Wi-Fi and according to the EU’s transport chief, Violeta Bulc, that is because road safety is an immediate and pressing concern, and that “Wi-Fi is a proven technology”.

Bulc, a former telecoms engineer, has stressed that she is not against 5G and has acknowledged that there is huge potential in the forthcoming roll-out. She also acknowledges that for full autonomous driving, it will be essential.

But it is the readily-available nature of Wi-Fi that is so appealing.

The EU has wholeheartedly embraced the ‘Vision Zero’ safety strategy, which seeks to reduce road deaths to almost zero by 2050. That means that initiatives like C-ITS need to be up and running as soon as possible.

Possible obstacles to 5G’s successful deployment have emerged recently, including anti-trust complaints against Nokia and even concerns in the EU’s de facto capital, Brussels, that people’s health could be affected by radiation from antenna towers.

A pilot project was recently postponed for that very reason and there are also problems when it comes to the lucrative auctioning of 5G licences, mostly due to Belgium’s unique federal system.

Following the Parliament’s yes vote, the telecoms industry warned that the decision could lock Europe into an outdated technology and that carmakers could just decide not to install C-ITS, no matter how much money is pumped into it.

That would put a serious dent in the EU’s quest to put a serious dent in the approximately 25,000 deaths that occur on Europe’s roads every year and the 137,000 serious injuries also suffered.

Bulc and other Wi-Fi advocates will be hoping that the financial element will finally win the day, as there are very few patents on the technology that would otherwise inflate costs.

According to the EU’s lawmaking process though, it will be national capitals that will have the final say over whether to give Wi-Fi the green light.

Finland and Spain have both made complaints about the way the process has been handled, with the Nordic country in particular voicing concerns that the Commission has not practised its ‘technological neutrality’ mantra.

Germany, as always, might prove to be kingmaker, although given that its mighty car industry is partly split on the issue, it could be a difficult decision for Berlin.

The Bundesrepublik’s transport ministry is currently assessing concerns raised by both BMW and Deutsche Telekom, while the European Council’s legal experts are working on an opinion that will be presented to all member states next month.

Both pieces of analysis will feed into an overall decision, which is expected in Brussels in early to mid May.

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