European Parliament’s transport committee opposes Commission’s preference for Wi-Fi as the communication standard for connected and autonomous vehicles

Following months of debate, the European Commission approved its long-anticipated delegated act on the preferred communication technology standard for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) on 13 March 2019 (the “Regulation“, available here). However, the Commission’s decision – favouring Wi-Fi technology based on the existing ITS-G5 standard for short-range communications (V2V) – has already hit a road block: it was rejected by the European Parliament’s transport committee on Monday.  There will now be intense focus from industry on whether the European Parliament vote next week follows its transport committee’s recommendation to block the Regulation.

In this post, we consider the content of the Regulation, why the Commission’s decision has proved so controversial and what may happen next.

Interoperability, backwards compatibility and an opportunity to review

CAV interoperability (the need to ensure that CAVs can ‘talk’ to one another) and backwards compatibility (the need to ensure that later versions of CAV systems / infrastructure work with CAVs that are already on the road) remain key goals for the Commission and the Regulation’s explanatory memorandum stresses these issues.  The Commission also expressed the desire to achieve these goals with minimal legal requirements; preferring instead to rely on the existence and evolution of relevant technical standards.

In an attempt to address the interoperability and compatibility of CAVs, the Commission has inserted a review clause into the Regulation, which will be triggered three years after it enters into force (potentially on 31 December 2022).  At the review stage, the Commission will assess the implementation of the Regulation and consider the status of communication standards such as long-range cellular technology (including 5G) (C-V2X), with a view to potentially amending the technical standards in the Regulation to accommodate these other standards.

The review clause is the Commission’s attempt to ‘future-proof’ the Regulation by allowing it to ‘wait and see’ how technologies such as 5G develop over the coming years. However, many commentators consider the review clause to be little more than an attempt by the Commission to come up with a compromise position, which in reality serves to delay its real decision by another three years.

In the meantime, however, the Commission has selected the Wi-Fi based ITS-G5 standard for V2V communications on the basis that it is a mature, tested and readily available technology, which it hopes it will rapidly accelerate the uptake of CAVs across Europe. The Commission also suggests that stakeholders prepare their CAV products in a way that allows for the integration of future technologies and encourages the adoption of a ‘hybrid communication’ approach that includes both V2V and C-V2X technologies.

An unsatisfying result for (some) lobbying groups

The Commission is seeking to present the Regulation as granting car manufacturers and road operators the ‘long-awaited legal certainty’ to begin CAV development, whilst ‘remaining open to new technology and market developments.’ However, the review clause alone is unlikely to appease the multiple stakeholders and trade groups that were seeking a firmer commitment from the Commission on technology standards.

Trade groups GSMA and 5GAA have already criticised the Commission’s decision, saying that ITS-G5 is an outdated technology and its selection by the Commission hampers the digital competitiveness of the EU.

Impact on 5G rollout

Although the EU has publicly committed to the adoption of 5G services by 2025, the economic argument for telecoms companies to build the new infrastructure required for 5G networks would have been given further weight if the Commission had given 5G technology regulatory backing in the Regulation. Telecoms companies, numerous Member States and infrastructure investors see CAVs as a key use case for 5G technology, with there being significant synergies between the roll-out of CAV technology and public 5G networks (see our previous article for further detail).

The Commission’s decision to favour Wi-Fi (at least in the short term) will impact short term business cases for 5G roll-out and may impact investment plans over the next few years to build the expensive infrastructure (radio equipment, fibre and data centres) at scale to support new 5G services (the cost of which the Commission itself has estimated at EUR 500 billion).

A ‘technologically neutral’ approach?

Another controversial aspect of the Regulation is the perception that the Commission is favouring one technology over another. As previously reported (here), a number of Member States, including Spain and Finland, have expressed concern regarding the level of regulatory restrictions proposed in the Regulation.

This issue was also raised by the European Parliament’s transport committee in its review of the Regulation. In its reasons for recommending that the European Parliament reject the Regulation (available here), the committee stated that the Regulation’s favouring of Wi-Fi technology is not ‘a truly technologically neutral approach’. It also suggests that the Regulation’s requirement for backwards compatibility with Wi-Fi technology sets ‘limits to the development of innovative transport C-ITS systems across Europe’.

Deepening jurisdictional divides

The Regulation, if approved by the European Parliament, would add to the deepening jurisdictional divides that are emerging with respect to technology standards for CAVs. The Regulation’s preference for Wi-Fi would see the EU aligned with the approach taken by Japan, but be at odds with China’s election for C-V2X (see here). The US, meanwhile, previously mandated Wi-Fi V2V technology back in 2016 but has not moved forward with the regulation since, leaving the door open for C-V2X.

This mixed geographical approach means that manufacturers will need to invest in both technologies in order to cater for global markets, creating complexities in their global supply chains.

European Parliament to vote on proposals next week

As a so-called ‘delegated act’ (prepared by a panel of experts from Member States), the European Parliament and Council must each either approve (expressly or by tacit acceptance) or object to the Regulation within a two month period following its publication. If neither objects, the Regulation will come into force on 31 December 2019.

It is unclear how the European Parliament will vote.  Typically, it will follow the recommendation of the transport committee.  However, continued heavy lobbying by proponents of V2V technology, including the VW Group and the European Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, may be enough to see the Regulation over the line.

The European Parliament will hold a full vote on the Regulation at its plenary session from 15 – 18 April 2019. Should the Regulation be rejected, the Commission will have no choice but to reconsider its approach.

Conclusion

While there continues to be argument on both sides as to whether the approach taken by the Regulation is the right one, it is clear that more certainty is needed (one way or the other).  The successful deployment and operation of CAVs requires proven interoperable communication solutions.  Further, given the lead-time in car manufacturers’ design and production timelines, there are necessarily technology choices to be made by industry in the coming year in order to deliver vehicles for scaled testing and early adoption in Europe.

It is however unusual for the Commission to be willing to play a leading role in early technology choices in a growing market, and with this in mind, we are not surprised that any technology selection in the Regulation will be the subject of a short term review.

 

Lode Van Den Hende
Lode Van Den Hende
Partner, Brussels
+32 2 518 1831
David Coulling
David Coulling
Partner, London
+44 20 7466 2442
James Allsop
James Allsop
Senior Associate, Tokyo
+81 3 5412 5409
Milan Baxter
Milan Baxter
Associate, London
+44 20 7466 6441

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