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Talking Cars, Quiet Qualcomm

Talking Cars, Quiet Qualcomm
by Roger C. Lanctot on 03-25-2017 at 12:00 pm

Qualcomm is a technology titan standing astride both the automotive and wireless industries with 10’s of thousands of patents, 340M automotive-grade chipsets shipped and a leading position in the connected car industry. So it is fascinating to find executives at the company almost totally tongue-tied of late when it comes to talking about the car technology currently facing a government mandate: DSRC-based (dedicated short-range communication) V2V.

Qualcomm ought to have a lot to say about DSRC. Qualcomm is a manufacturer of DSRC chipsets by virtue of its ownership of Atheros. Qualcomm also happens to control more than a third of the automotive semiconductor market, thanks to its acquisition of NXP Semiconductors. And, of course, there are all those patents.

It is hard to overstate Qualcomm’s influence in the automotive industry so recently magnified by the NXP buy. Because Qualcomm is helping to connect both cars and smartphones the company is in the unique position of enabling a true vehicle-to-everything connectivity environment where cars will be able to talk to other cars, pedestrians and infrastructure – all in the interest of collision avoidance, and congestion and emissions mitigation.

Further, car makers rely on Qualcomm – as they also rely on Renesas, Intel and Nvidia – to help them anticipate emerging trends in connectivity and wireless access including performance issues such as transmission speeds, reliability, coverage, latency and deep insights into network infrastructure. The scope of Qualcomm’s expertise extends to all forms of wireless communications and billions of people and millions of organizations around the world rely on Qualcomm technology for their safety, security and livelihoods.

But thanks to a falling out with the automotive industry over the sharing of the spectrum to be used by DSRC, Qualcomm has suddenly gone quiet. Because Qualcomm’s interests extend beyond the automotive world, the company has a deeper appreciation of the importance of proper spectrum allocations for different applications. Qualcomm is also aware of the need for more spectrum across a broad range of use case scenarios impacting hundreds of millions of users and millions of enterprises.

Last year, Qualcomm responded to a request for comment on DSRC made by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was preparing to launch testing of different spectrum sharing options in response to a bi-partisan request from three U.S. Senators to find a way to share the allocated DSRC spectrum for unlicensed uses in a manner that might satisfy both the automotive industry and the cable and Wi-Fi industries.

The core of Qualcomm’s comment was that “re-channelization” of the spectrum will not require substantial expensive and time-consuming testing – as claimed by DSRC advocates within the automotive industry. (Separately, a Qualcomm senior vice president of engineering described the DSRC technology as currently conceived as a “dead end.”)

These were strong words indeed coming from the automotive semiconductor market leader. Qualcomm clearly stands to benefit mightily from a mandate of DSRC-based V2V technology – yet it was prepared to stop the progress of 19 years of study and development to challenge the basic assumptions behind the technology or at least to foster a recalibration to provide for wider use of the spectrum.

Offsetting its automotive industry concerns were its investments in the cable and Wi-Fi industries, where commercial applications can be expected to drive substantial economic activity and revenue creation. Freeing up spectrum with a new spectrum sharing scheme will serve the interests of both the automotive industry and the cable and Wi-Fi industries.

Car companies did not see it Qualcomm’s way. The Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers responded to Qualcomm’s re-channelization claim by filing a response with the FCC questioning Qualcomm’s familiarity with DSRC technology and how it can be so sure of its conclusions. The two automotive associations also suggested that Qualcomm may understand wireless technology but that it doesn’t understand the requirements of automotive safety.

A lot has changed in the 19 years since DSRC technology was first proposed. The cellular network has evolved such that direct communications between vehicles is now possible using advanced forms of LTE technology. In addition, the onset of radar, LiDAR and camera-based sensor technologies in support of automated driving has fundamentally altered the thinking behind connecting cars to other cars.

Qualcomm itself has been impacted by the evolution of wireless technology. The company now focuses its vehicle-to-vehicle comments toward its research development devoted to LTE and 5G cellular technologies. (“Please don’t ask us about DSRC,” is the unspoken sentiment.)

Automakers, too, have gone silent on DSRC. General Motors stands alone as the most prominent advocate and spokesperson for DSRC-based V2V tech. The company will begin shipping DSRC-equipped Cadillac CTS vehicles later this month. Not a single competitor has responded – and the average consumer has no idea what DSRC is or why it exists.

The silence from Qualcomm and from competing automakers speaks volumes as to the unanswered questions regarding cybersecurity, privacy, infrastructure and adoption of DSRC. GM is turning its DSRC-equipped vehicles into wireless broadcasters (sending a basic safety message of location, heading and speed 10x/sec) only capable of communicating with other Cadillac CTS’s. With no infrastructure supporting the launch, GM will bear full responsibility for the fidelity and reliability of those broadcasts and their vulnerability.

One of the core attractions of using cellular technology for V2V is the ubiquity of the technology along with its backwards and forwards compatibility. DSRC as currently conceived provides no evolutionary path and only limited interoperability – especially in regard to regional variations in the technology in Europe and Asia.

Meanwhile, the FCC is continuing its testing of spectrum sharing alternatives. The Acting Legal Adviser for Wireless and International Issues at the Federal Communications Commission responded on behalf of recently-appointed Chairman Ajit Pai to my inquiry regarding that testing thus:

“Chairman Pai asked me to respond to your email below on the status of spectrum sharing for unlicensed use between Wi-Fi and DSRC. Thank you for your interest in this issue. At this time, the Commission’s Office of Engineering and Technology continues phase 1 testing work. We have not set a conclusion date for this phase of testing.”

I don’t understand what the automotive industry hopes to gain from shouting down one of its most essential technology suppliers and confidants. For Qualcomm to speak out the way it did reflects a careful consideration of commercial, legal, and technological factors. The automotive industry’s decision to question Qualcomm’s authority on the subject and therefore silence a critical source of technological insight is troubling to say the least. With 5G technology poised to disrupt and radically advance the nature of vehicle connectivity, the automotive industry ought to be putting a megaphone on Qualcomm, not a muzzle.

For a more detailed discussion of DSRC V2V technology check out “Roadblocks to Implementing V2X Communications” a report commissioned by the International Telecommunications Union and prepared by Michael L. Sena Consulting AB. (Report link to come.)

Roger C. Lanctot is Associate Director in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics. More details about Strategy Analytics can be found here:

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