BRYAN, Texas — Federal, state and local transportation agencies have spent decades preparing for the arrival of a connected-vehicle communications technology that could potentially thwart crashes and save lives.
But when transportation leaders met last week at the Texas A&M Transportation Technology Conference, their concerns about the future of the technology was palpable.
Days earlier, Toyota, one of the auto industry’s strongest proponents of using dedicated short-range communications messages, said it would postpone plans to equip all new vehicles with radios to transmit DSRC messages by 2021. It left conference participants wondering about the future of the technology. In some cases, agencies have installed roadside units to carry these messages.
“We do not want to be in a situation where we’re picking between Betamax versus VHS,” said Tom Byron, chief engineer at the Florida Department of Transportation. “It makes us very uncomfortable from a DOT perspective, because we may be investing millions of dollars in something that’s never going to be used.”
DSRC’s challenges are at least twofold. A federal mandate failed to materialize, leaving automakers and other interested parties, such as the Federal Communications Commission, uncertain about its path forward. In the meantime, a cellular version of DSRC messages, broadly known as vehicle-to-everything, or V2X, has emerged as an alternative path because V2X could share information with other vehicles, infrastructure or even bicyclists and pedestrians.
Toyota’s announcement marks the latest chapter in the battle between cellular-V2X and DSRC, leaving the future of DSRC all the more precarious. Though Toyota has paused its plans, company officials say they remain firm proponents of DSRC over the long term.
“We were past the drop-dead time on a decision to put this in, and felt like we had to be honest about what our plans are and how they’ve changed,” Ed Bradley, a program manager in Toyota’s regulatory affairs department, told the conference. “But it in no way, shape or form diminishes our support for DSRC and what we’re thinking and doing as we look to the future.”
Proponents of DSRC hold it up as the only method of communication that has been vetted for more than a decade and is available to deploy now. A 2018 study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that as many as 8.1 million crashes and 44,000 deaths could be prevented if V2X technology was deployed today compared with waiting three years to develop and evaluate competing technologies.
DSRC advocates see Toyota’s decision as a setback, but not the end of the road.
“It’s key that they’re pushing the ‘pause’ button,” said Greg Winfree, executive director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “It’s not the ‘eject’ button. It’s not the ‘We’re going to find a new technology’ button. It’s ‘We still believe in this technology and the power of connected vehicles to save lives and reduce injuries.’ ”
But automakers are hesitant to pay for additional equipment, especially if their competitors are not mandated to do the same. Because they already install equipment for cellular connectivity, Bluetooth, LTE and 4G LTE, and even SiriusXM, they’re reluctant to add another radio.
“How do we guarantee [improved] safety when their motivation is profit from getting as much content into the vehicle and obtaining data from the vehicle,” said Jim Barbaresso, national practice leader for intelligent transportation at HNTB, a consulting firm that advises clients on infrastructure projects. “It’s going to be this tug of war between those two things.”
Toyota isn’t the only automaker caught in the middle. Last June, General Motors said it would install DSRC-based V2X communications systems in a “high-volume Cadillac crossover” by 2023, and then extend the technology throughout the brand’s lineup. But in recent comments to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the automaker hedged, saying, “DSRC has demonstrated the technical capability” while adding that cellular technology “also holds promise”
One potential solution might be to install dual-mode equipment capable of discerning safety messages sent via DSRC or cellular methods. Suppliers such as Bosch and Continental have developed and marketed such capabilities. Benefits from a so-called interoperable system might allow automakers to launch V2X systems now without waiting for the technology battle to play out. It might also add a layer of redundancy over the long term.
But Hongsheng Lu, a Toyota researcher speaking at the conference, cast doubt on the viability of such an approach.
“That would increase the cost on the user side without increasing the benefits,” he said. “And since these technologies are not interoperable, they’ll need additional spectrum, and as a result, we’d have to cut down the applications we planned to support. … We face a complex cost-benefit equation, a confusing technology market, and unclear government policy outlook.”