The other power driving your car

Until recently, drivers asked about their car’s power would invariably answer in terms of fuel: diesel or petrol. Now such questions might elicit a response around variants of plug-in vehicles. But there is another force driving our cars these days, and it is the same one that powers our cellphones: the internet.

Cars today are as much computers as they are machinery. The technologies under the bonnet control everything from cruise control to navigation to accident prevention. The latest innovations help cars communicate with one another and with the transport infrastructure. This connected car market could make roads safer, transform the driving experience, and be worth billions.

But to really work properly, everyone should speak the same language, which is why the European Commission wants benchmarks for connected cars.

So, what is the language they will speak? On April 17, the European Parliament endorsed wifi over 5G technology as the standard for connecting cars. This could have huge implications for carmakers, telecoms operators and equipment makers: the issue has split industry sectors, with both wifi and 5G advocates arguing that they offer the best solution for connected vehicles.

The wifi-based ITS-G5 standard for short-range communication technology mainly connects cars to other cars. 5G links up to both cars and devices nearby, and it covers a broader range of applications like traffic data, general navigation and entertainment.

Only one technology available

Wifi backers say their technology is more appropriate now because it is available, unlike 5G. The European Commission supports this line. EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc wrote to the Parliament’s Transport Chairwoman Karima Delli underlining that more than 25,000 people still die on our roads every year. “There is only one technology available today: wifi,” she said.

As part of its Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) programme, the Commission has proposed a Delegated Act that would require cars and the various roadside infrastructure to which they will connect over the coming years to be backwards compatible with ITS-G5.

Transitional Technology

But 5G supporters say that this effectively favours wifi over 5G, breaching a principle of technology neutrality. They say wifi is an “old” technology that has seen very little commercial deployment so far despite being ready for many years. The requirement for new technologies to be compatible with older technology is also seen as unrealistic, putting a brake on innovation.

The telecoms lobbying group ETNO is now urging EU member states to bring 4G and 5G back into the picture when they scrutinise the proposals. In a joint letter, BMW’s Harald Krüger and Deutsche Telekom’s Timotheus Höttges describe wifi as a “transitional technology” that is so old and slow. They have an ally in Finland which wrote to its fellow member states saying, “Europe could have broader penetration and faster implementation by giving all technologies a chance.”

The battle for standards is far from over. However, there are fears that if it remains unresolved, it will lead to compatibility issues in the future. With petrol and diesel, the competition between them had few implications for associated applications. But between wifi and 5G, the fight could delay the entire connected car concept.