For all the articles written about the future of self-driving and connected cars, few people seem to have heard of one of one of the most important drivers (no pun intended) of that future: C-V2X. If you aren’t familiar with the term, the “C” in C-V2X refers to cellular (although I have also seen Connected and Continuous used instead); the “V” refers to vehicles; the “2” is simply an abbreviation for to (as in P2P being short for peer-to-peer); and the “X” is the now increasingly common abbreviation for anything and/or everything (just like AR/VR/MR has turned into the simplified “XR”).
Breaking it down one step further, C-V2X generally focuses on communications between vehicles and pedestrians (V2P), vehicles and other vehicles (V2V), vehicles and infrastructure (V2I), and vehicles and networks (V2N). Thus, C-V2X encompasses cellular communications systems and protocols between connected vehicles and key elements of their environment: the road, other vehicles, pedestrians, and cellular networks.
C-V2X also addresses a number of increasingly critical smart vehicle and connected vehicle functions from relaying real time traffic congestion information to forward collision warning, lane change and blind-spot warnings, and allowing vehicles to effectively “see” around corners and blind turns.
A simple way to think of C-V2X is as the foundational cellular technology that future autonomous vehicles will depend on to communicate with their environment, but in the meantime, it also happens to be the technology that all connected and semi-autonomous vehicles will increasingly depend on during the transition years from non-autonomous transportation to fully-autonomous transportation.
More broadly, V2X (minus the C) is any connectivity solution between vehicles and everything else.
C-V2X vs DSRC
While consensus around the C-V2X model should be easy to achieve across the automotive industry, adoption of that common standard hasn’t exactly been easy. The principal reason for this is that C-V2X is a relative latecomer in the V2X space, and some automakers have been reluctant to abandon their decade-long investments in C-V2X’s precursor, DSRC (short for Dedicated Short Range Communications). Volkswagen Group and Toyota, for instance, have been huge proponents of DSRC, which has dominated the V2X space for the last few years.
At the risk of oversimplifying the difference between C-V2X and DSRC, an easy way to differentiate between the two is to think of C-V2X as a cellular-based system while DSRC follows more of a WiFi approach to connectivity. (In fact, DSRC is essentially a WiFi variant that allows low-latency communications between vehicles and infrastructure.)
Were it not for the commercialization of 5G starting this year, DSRC’s low latency advantage over early versions of C-V2X might have extended its head start another three or four years… but in the automotive world as in the mobile world and the IoT, 5G is the coming decade’s biggest technology game-changer. In this case, 5G promises ultra-low latency that will make C-V2X as effective as DSRC in V2V applications, in addition to its broader range of capabilities (V2P, V2I, and obviously V2N). The short of it: DSRC was a great solution for the 4G era, but C-V2X is a better solution for the 5G era and beyond.
That pill is a hard one to swallow for VW, GM, and Toyota, however, and the automotive giants have been fighting hard to hold off the rest of the industry’s push for C-V2X. This is particularly important as major markets like the US and the EU are in the process of determining what technology to invest in over the course of the next decade (and effectively select a standard for most of the world). That problem is further exacerbated by the snail-like speed at which commissions tend to study these types of technologies, then submit their reports, before lawmakers and appropriate regulatory agencies finally get to work discussing what to do next. Thus, many of this past year’s high level governmental discussions about the virtues of C-V2X vs DSRC have been based on outdated data and talking points that may no longer reflect today’s technology realities, let alone tomorrow’s.
Add politics, partisanship, and lobbying into the mix, and what might seem like a no-brainer decision to you and me might suddenly find itself derailed in favor of a solution that will soon be outdated (if not obsolete), at the expense of public safety and cost management for municipalities, states, and automakers. (DSRC and C-V2X require entirely different chipsets, and device-to-device incompatibility on such a scale can quickly become a massive headache for everyone if street lights and connected vehicles can’t talk to each other.)
The EU finally comes one step closer to finding the right balance between politics and technology
In autumn 2018, the European Commission, prompted by VW’s support of DSRC, voted to favor that solution over the more advanced 5G-based C-V2X. In the EU’s defense, one of the factors that affected their decision was timing: Again an oversimplification, but the EU was tasked with selecting a solution that could be implemented as early as 2019. C-V2X, for all its advantages, is somewhat more dependent on 5G, and would therefore take a bit longer to implement. In other words, the choice was between an imperfect and limited solution that could be implemented immediately, or a better solution for the 5G era that would force the EU to shift its timetable back a year or two. As funding set aside for V2X investments was predicated on a solution that could be implemented in the short term, the EU was pressured to go with DSRC.
But not so fast: On April 8 of this year, merely ten days before the EU was to hold a vote on the matter, an EU committee objected to the EC’s decision to favor DSRC, and put C-V2X back in play. Per the EE Times:
“The EU Parliament’s transport committee is now arguing that the Commission’s push for DSRC-based V2X goes against the Commission’s own campaign to promote 5G-based activities as fuel for economic growth. This 11th hour action by the committee took place just before the European Parliament’s planned April 17th vote on the Commission’s DSRC proposal.”
The plot, as they say, thickened.
And while the EC ultimately voted to adopt the DSRC standard on April 17, the European Union rejected the European Commission’s recommendation in July, opening the door yet again to the likelihood of a C-V2X future in Europe. In fact, 21 out of the EU’s 28 member states rejected the EC’s push for DSRC.
As things stand, it appears that the EU is effectively running out the clock on the EC’s sense of urgency regarding arriving at a decision, perhaps in order to be in a better position to recommend the adoption of the 5G-friendly C-V2X (favored by not only the majority of the auto industry, but wireless giants like Intel, Qualcomm, Samsung, Ericsson, Huawei, and Deutsche Telecom). My read on this strategy is that the further along 5G deployments are when the matter comes to a vote again, the more attractive C-V2X will be, and the more outdated DSRC will seem.
… And the rest of the world will hopefully follow suit
As an aside, China appears to also be favoring C-V2X over DSRC. The next giant piece of the puzzle will be the US, which has yet to decide which standard to adopt. Given the Trump administration’s public statements in support of 5G and infrastructure investments in the past year, and the fact that Qualcomm, Intel, and the Ford Motor Company are strong advocates of the C-V2X standard (as, I assume, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint/T-Mobile, and Dish will be), I find it increasingly likely that when the USDOT finally gets around to making a recommendation to lawmakers, it will pick C-V2X over DSRC.
To be continued.