Automakers and telecoms firms bicker over EU connected vehicle proposal

An EU proposal expected later this year has divided car companies and telecoms operators over whether policymakers should give preference to 5G or Wifi as the technology to drive connected vehicles. [Jaguar MENA/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report What’s driving Europe’s strategy on connected cars?.

A battle between car manufacturers and telecoms operators is heating up as the European Commission prepares to announce legislation later this year that could determine whether automakers will need to rely on Wifi or wireless 5G technology to build internet-connected vehicles.

It’s a technical Brussels debate that has largely flown under the radar, and has attracted surprisingly little attention even from members of the European Parliament and observers of EU-level technology policies.

But pressure is mounting on the European Commission to weigh in on the debate. Violeta Bulc, the EU’s transport Commissioner, made it a goal to have internet-connected vehicles on roads by next year – when the current administration leaves office.

Car and telecoms firms are on their toes as they wait for a decision about what technology the EU executive may back to promote connected vehicles.

A legal proposal that is expected in the autumn to accelerate connected car technologies has driven a wedge between the car and telecoms industries. Some car manufacturers want the Commission to throw its weight behind satellite vehicle-to-vehicle communication, or V2V, which is based on short-range Wifi.

Car companies that are pushing for the Commission to support the use of Wifi networks argue that it is already available, so there will be no delay in introducing new vehicles with connected entertainment or safety features that rely on the technology. In the 5G camp, the telecoms industry argues that Wifi is too out-of-date for the fast developing new features in connected cars.

Telecoms operators are clinging to C-V2X, the longer-range vehicle-to-infrastructure technology that is considered a stepping stone towards next generation 5G networks. The fast 5G technology is still in test phase and the Commission’s top officials in charge of the bloc’s technology policies have pledged to make the networks available for commercial use around Europe by 2025.

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Officials drawing up the Commission strategy have insisted that it will not favour one technology over the other but will remain “technology neutral” by requiring manufacturers to build systems that work with both Wifi and 5G.

But the telecoms industry is still worried that the bill will give preference to Wifi. They argue that would take away some of their incentive to invest the billions of euros needed into building 5G networks that cover the entire EU.

Andy Hudson, head of policy at mobile industry group GSMA, said that the proposal should be technology neutral by only identifying what connected car services the Commission wants manufacturers to offer, but it should leave out any “regulatory bias” and not pick one technology.

GSMA has argued in favour of 5G as the basis for connected cars. Hudson said the car industry needs years to adopt new technologies across its entire stock, and that development of new internet-based services could be slowed down if the Commission decides to favour Wifi.

“It is more important to consider the sustainability of a solution as opposed to its time to market,” he said.

A recent draft of the legislation, obtained by EURACTIV, says that “the regulation shall be reviewed at the latest 3 years after its entry into force to take into account technological progress”. Some industry groups close to the file want the review time to be far shorter and include clear criteria for what technological changes could prompt another legal overhaul.

One concern shared by supporters of 5G is that a decision from the Commission to side with Wifi could result in car manufacturers rejecting the wireless C-V2X technology, meaning that new cars will continue to rely on Wifi for years.

German car manufacturer Volkswagen has committed to using Wifi systems in new cars that come out through next year.

“We have to focus not too much on today but on what we want in 2030,” said Maxime Flament, chief technology officer at 5GAA, an association made up of carmakers and telecoms operators that back an approach to connected vehicles based on 5G. Volkswagen is a member of the group.

Flament said the current draft of the Commission’s plan addresses how vehicles will communicate with each other, but does not consider what technology will be needed to help cars talk to road infrastructure that is located further away than other vehicles driving nearby. Chips using 5G can be installed into cars and infrastructure along roads like traffic lights to speed up traffic or prevent collisions.

Steve Phillips, secretary general of the Conference of European Directors of Roads, an association that represents public authorities, questioned whether 5G should be the basis for connected cars when significant stretches of European roads still have poor wireless service.

There are not many services we think need it. Most of the services are working very well with 4G and if we look at the lack of coverage on parts of the network of 3G, that’s where the focus needs to be. We don’t even have full coverage yet of 3G on the European road network,” Phillips said, referring to today’s mobile networks.

“We’re not interested in just a few trial sites to say, ‘look we’ve done it’. We’re interested in bringing out a meaningful service to achieve the safety and environmental and congestion benefits across the whole network,” he added.

Supporters of the two different technologies are still bickering over whether 5G or Wifi systems are safer, cheaper and easier and quicker to set up. They have a few more months to make their case before the Commission presents its proposal.

The EU executive insists that the legislation will focus on making sure the two systems are “interoperable”, meaning that manufacturers that build cars relying on 5G will need to allow the vehicles to also communicate using Wifi.

A 2016 strategy paper from the Commission declared that “initial deployment for short range vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication will be based on technologies already available”, meaning Wifi-based systems, which “where appropriate will operate in seamless coexistence with 5G, under a complementarity principle”.

The proposal will come out of the EU executive’s transport arm, DG Move, this autumn. The directorate is responsible for recent initiatives like the eCall legislation that requires automated safety devices in all new vehicles. It has also promoted truck platooning trials, when partially automated lorries communicate while driving close to each other, allowing them to save fuel.

There’s an added layer of Brussels policy drama heating up the connected car squabble: the legislation is drafted as a so-called “delegated act”, a fast-tracked procedure where the Commission legislates with a committee of “experts” from member states.

The process is notoriously secretive and often receives little public attention because it does not go through the typical, drawn-out negotiating processes with MEPs and national governments. Instead, the European Parliament and government diplomats can approve or reject the bill, but cannot propose changes to it.

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