First publishedin ITS International
Virgin Hyperloop One: a likely beneficiary of USDoT's NETT announcement
The US Department of Transportation has announced a new council to champion emerging mobility tech – but one car manufacturer is currently not feeling that such support is everything it might be
The announcement of a brand new body to champion autonomous vehicles (AVs) - among other innovations – is a potentially welcome development for mobility and transit providers. Elaine L. Chao, US secretary of transportation, says that the newly-created Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council, part of the US Department of Transportation (USDoT) is “tasked with identifying and resolving jurisdictional and regulatory gaps that may impede the deployment of new technology”.
It will be staffed by “high-ranking DoT officials”. This sounds good: on its radar, as well as AVs, are things like tunnelling and hyperloop developments. As Chao said: “New technologies increasingly straddle more than one mode of transportation.” Hence the logic of setting up an internal council “to better coordinate the review of innovation that have multimodal applications”.
Looking from the outside, there is a good sense at work here: USDoT has 11 operating administrations, each with its own jurisdiction over particular environmental and regulatory approvals.
As a result of these silos, new technologies “may not always fit precisely into the Department’s existing regulatory structure, potentially resulting in a slower pace of transportation innovation”.
This is where the NETT Council comes in, “ensuring that the traditional modal silos at DoT do not impede the deployment of new technology”. It will also give potential project sponsors a single point of contact to discuss thorny matters such as safety permits and funding, thus simplifying the journey from idea to action. Plus, the USDoT says, it will reduce regulatory burdens.
The first meeting of the council, chaired by deputy secretary Jeffrey Rosen and vice chaired by undersecretary of transportation for policy Derek Kan, was due to discuss tunnelling technologies seeking various approvals in several US states.
Virgin Hyperloop One is particularly pleased by the idea of NETT. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, expressed his thanks to Chao “for her leadership setting up this forward-thinking council”. The company says it has been engaged with the DoT and secretary Chao for some time, attempting to take the necessary steps to commercialise hyperloop technology. It calls the formation of the council “the culmination of months of work at the federal, state and local level”.
This new potential form of mass transit is a good test case for NETT’s non-silo approach. The technology mixes electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation, so while hyperloop has some obvious similarities with rail, it has other elements – such as cabin pressurisation – which give it more affinity with the aviation sector. Virgin says it “requires a forward-thinking consortium to bring this to commercialisation in the US”. As well as projects in India and the United Arab Emirates, it also has testing underway in Missouri, Texas, Colorado and the Midwest.
Toyota and V2X
But not everyone is feeling the love. Set against this encouraging backdrop is the separate announcement by Toyota that it is suspending its roll-out of Vehicle to Everything (V2X) technology. The Japanese car maker sent a letter to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) saying that a lack of activity from other manufacturers on V2X – plus what it sees as issues over regulation - have prompted the move.
In April last year, Toyota announced that it would deploy dedicated short range communications (DSRC) systems on vehicles sold in the US from 2021, with the goal of adoption across most of its ranges “by the mid-2020s”.
The manufacturer is clear that DSRC systems will help it create “a safer driving ecosystem” and encouraged “other automakers and transportation infrastructure owners and operators to quickly commit to DSRC technology in the US to realise the full safety and traffic flow benefits of the technology”.
It also expressed confidence that the FCC “would implement a sharing mechanism for unlicensed operations in the 5.9 GHz band only if testing fully validated that such operations could safely occur in the band and not disrupt the current or future deployment of DSRC technology by existing licensees”.
This was all very positive. But the letter sent to the FCC from Hilary M. Cain, Toyota’s director, technology and innovation policy, took a very different tone. “Although there continues to be general excitement about DSRC and the benefits of widespread deployment among key stakeholders, since our product announcement, we have not seen significant production commitments from other automakers,” Cain wrote.
Without this commitment, it thinks the safety benefits of Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication “will not be fully realised”.
Disconnected: Toyota is concerned at what it sees as regulatory uncertainty over the 5.9 GHz band © Haiyin | Dreamstime.com
Perhaps more pressingly, Toyota also took aim at the regulator, suggesting that “the regulatory environment surrounding the 5.9 GHz band has become even more uncertain and unstable”.
Toyota is “firmly committed” to the idea that the whole 5.9 GHz band should be preserved for DSRC. The FCC is not so sure. Cain writes: “In addition to the long-standing pending proceeding involving the possibility of unlicensed operation in the band, the Commission recently initiated a second proceeding to explore the possibility of reallocating channels away from DSRC to Cellular-V2X (C-V2X). Certainly, unpredictability around whether DSRC will continue to have access to the entire 5.9 GHz band poses a significant challenge to the real-world deployment of a collision avoidance technology.”
This looks like the crux of the problem. The company’s worry is that DSRC operations “could be subject to harmful interference from unlicensed operations or other technologies should they be permitted in the band, that channels used for DSRC could be reallocated after services using those channels have entered the market, or that spectrally-inefficient band fragmentation could impair the ability to expand DSRC services and applications over time”. All this “creates a substantial and arguably insurmountable risk”.
ITS America has expressed its dismay: “We appreciate Toyota’s leadership and commitment to life-saving V2X technology. We are disappointed that the current regulatory uncertainty led to [the] letter notifying the FCC of Toyota’s decision to pause V2X deployment plans.”
The trade association sees this carrying important ramifications which go well beyond a simple commercial decision. “Sadly, the real tragedy is that 100 people will continue to die every day on US roadways,” ITS America concludes. “It is imperative that the FCC provide clear guidance and certainty to the private sector companies and road operators that are trying to create a safer environment by deploying V2X communications.”
There are, of course, other approaches out there. For example, Ford has already gone down a different route, committing to equipping its cars with C-V2X technology in the US from 2022 – and insists all new vehicles released in the US will have conventional cellular connectivity by the end of this year. C-V2X will work with Ford Co-Pilot360, the company’s suite of driver-assist and safety features in new passenger cars, SUVs and trucks. Ford, too, is clear that driver safety will be the winner.
While Toyota’s letter to the FCC is strong stuff – the sort of missive that may have needed to be read with a stiff drink – it must be borne in mind that the company is emphatically not closing the door altogether: it is pledging to ‘pause’ rather than stop its deployment, and says it will “continue to re-evaluate the deployment environment”.
The manufacturer is clear that it will continue to throw its weight behind DSRC, calling it “the only proven and available technology for collision avoidance communication”. Cain also writes: “Importantly, based in part on the significant DSRC-related investment that has already occurred in the US, DSRC is the only technology that we believe is capable of garnering wide industry consensus in the US.”
That may, or may not be, the case. Ford, for one, might take issue with that assessment. New technologies require private investment to bring them to scale, and thus they naturally become commercial battlegrounds. Toyota is insistent that collaboration is required and will continue to engage with the FCC. But ITS America’s frustration is a sign that not everything in the garden is rosy.
It is a complex environment. While the formation of the NETT Council is not necessarily going to help Toyota in this particular instance, it provides a sign that the future might be easier for all pioneers in transportation. And many in ITS will be hoping that the manufacturer’s decision to pause V2X might only be a bump in the road, quickly negotiated.