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Transformative Tech

EU plan for driverless cars to connect by WiFi hits block

A proposal for self-driving cars to communicate with each other using a WiFi-based system hit a roadblock on Monday, with critics arguing for a neutral approach that would leave the door open for 5G technology.

The European Parliament’s transport and tourism committee rejected the draft legislation on the issue ahead of a full vote in the chamber that was due to take place next week.

The parliament is likely to follow the committee’s approach, but one person close to the process said the draft legislation favouring a WiFi system may still pass because it is strongly supported by carmakers including Volkswagen.

If the legislation is rejected then a debate over the technology standard will have to be revisited after the European elections.

The EU plan in its current form was opposed by the telecoms industry and some European governments, notably Finland and Spain, that want a technology-neutral standard for connected cars. The fear is that a move to back the WiFi-based approach would block 4G and 5G technology in the future as the two systems would not be compatible.

“The current rules would effectively exclude 5G from connected driving standards in Europe: this means putting the continent in the slow lane,” said Phillip Malloch, chairman of telecoms trade body ETNO.

The debate over whether the short-range WiFi-based system favoured by some governments and some carmakers is preferable to the cellular V2X technology has raged in recent years.

The WiFi system offers more immediate benefits in terms of safety as 5G networks are yet to launch fully in most European countries, but proponents of V2X argue that the cellular system will create a vastly safer road system over time and that a 4G version has been tested successfully.

Telecoms companies have also argued that the European Commission has itself extolled the benefits of 5G networks to support connected cars only later to champion an older technology.

Member states continued to debate the issue last week amid escalating tensions over the issue. Andrus Ansip, a commission vice-president responsible for the digital single market, has written to his counterpart Violeta Bulc, the transport commissioner, to warn that the proposed law would lead to a “slow and patchy” deployment of connected car technology.

In a letter seen by the Financial Times, Mr Ansip argues that the requirement for “backward compatibility” — where a future system would need to work with the older WiFi-based technology prescribed in the act — was against the long-term interest of Europeans.

Ms Bulc, however, wrote to members of the transport committee to stress the need to vote in favour of the WiFi technology. “Despite many claims, there is only one technology available today,” she said in a letter. She argued that waiting for new systems was not acceptable with 25,000 road deaths a year on European roads. “Every day wasted, waiting for the new technology, will cost lives,” she said.

The Finnish government has said it would oppose the act, because a “level playing field for technologies” was of the utmost importance. It also said that solving the backwards compatibility problem was “impossible”, as the different technologies operate at different frequencies and that putting the burden on newer technologies to solve that issue in the future was “unfair”.

The Spanish interior ministry has said that it supports the move to improve road traffic safety and efficiency but that the need to remain technologically neutral was “indispensable” and that the act was not the right legal instrument for tackling the issue.

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