When Wi-Fi Will Drive

By Adam Stone

October 15, 2004

Use of wireless network technology in cars has some amazing potential—and government and business backing—but the privacy issues and cost could hamper the telematic future on our roadsides.

The future was supposed to have flying bubble cars. That's what they promised us, and frankly we are pretty disappointed. Nonetheless, "talking" cars are a close second, and they may be here sooner than we think.

We don't mean cars that talk to drivers ("a door is ajar...") but rather cars that talk to their environment and perhaps eventually to one another. All this, thanks to the wonder of Wi-Fi.

Known collectively as Vehicle-Infrastructure Integration, the applications of Wi-Fi in the automotive telematics world may take on a range of identities. Systems might for instance monitor traffic in order to adjust the changing of lights. Sensors might use Wi-Fi feedback from vehicles to detect traffic jams. Emergency vehicles might use broadcast via wireless to change traffic signals in order to speed themselves along. Cars might also "communicate" with one another, as an exchange of Wi-Fi signals makes it possible to sound proximity alerts when two vehicles come too close to one another.

An entire study group in the 802.11 Working Group of the IEEE is devoted to this, called "Wireless Access for the Vehicular Environment." It will go by the moniker of 802.11p.

The government is encouraging such applications, with both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Transportation (DoT) expressing support for a wireless infrastructure that would support such safety- and traffic-management uses.

Analysts say it could happen, but they express significant reservations too.

On the one hand, "there is quite a bit of automaker support behind this," said Dan Benjamin, an analyst at ABI Research. "They are looking to put [Wi-Fi] transceivers into vehicles later in this decade, and once those transceivers are in the vehicles, there will be a greater argument for moving to implement the infrastructure to make use of this technology."

The government could speed such implementation in two ways, he said. First, the FCC would license the 5.9 GHz spectrum for 802.11p applications in the automotive realm. Then the DoT would take up the effort, deploying the receivers, transmitters and other physical infrastructure needed to make use of that wireless capability.

Some analysts see major hurdles, however. In the first place there is the money, or lack thereof. While Wi-Fi components may not be terribly expensive, large-scale public networks could put new pressures on already strained civic budgets, notes Julie Ask, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. The cost savings inherent in reducing congestion and saving lives "probably doesn't pay for this," she said.

To make these uses financial feasible, she suggested, government might need to compete with the private sector, perhaps by selling commercial or residential access on the same networks.

Privacy also is a major issue that will need to be addressed. Some civil liberties advocates for example already are questioning the automatic toll-collection systems in use today: They argue that such systems could be used to collect information on individual driver behaviors, which in turn could lay the foundation for some sort of broad-based government snooping. Expand such wireless identification to every vehicle at every street corner, and the privacy concerns are multiplied.

"Each machine or user who communicates with an access point has a MAC address," Ask explained. "Cars would also have some sort of identity. The 'system' may choose not to store that identity, but it would be possible."

At the same time there exists the possibility that competing technologies could squeeze Wi-Fi out of this space before such uses even get off the ground. General Motors for example is reportedly equipping about 3 million new cars each year with Onstar which uses cellular signals, and some observers argue that this same technology could fulfill the traffic-management ambitions envisioned for Wi-Fi.

Still, the expressed support of major government agencies suggests that an automotive implementation of Wi-Fi for civic uses is indeed a real possibility. That being the case, the Wi-Fi community will undoubtedly be wondering what business opportunities may exist. In this respect there is some potential good news.

The big opportunities could come in the form of roadside infrastructure. With miles of open road in this country, there likely will be a lot of street corners in need of sensors. In addition, those in the back-end business could find themselves with new work on their hands, connecting those sensors back to a central network.

At the same time, analysts say there may not be much new business in the way of Wi-Fi installation in cars themselves: Such equipment likely would be low-cost and would be managed by the automakers themselves.

Okay, it's not flying bubble cars. But it's a start.

Originally published on .

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