EU vote on Wi-Fi for driverless cars is disastrous for industry, say in-house counsel

connected cars

Telecoms and automotive firms say that proposed EU legislation to adopt Wi-Fi as the standard for driverless cars will force automotive makers to use an outdated technology and put them at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the world

The European Parliament’s vote to rely on Wi-Fi as the standard for driverless car connectivity will force car manufacturers to buy licences for otherwise unnecessary technology and drain patent department resources, according to telecoms and automotive counsel.

Under the proposed legislation, autonomous vehicles would have to use Wi-Fi technology as the standard for communication between cars. The argument made by EU legislators was that Wi-Fi is a tried-and-tested technology and thus safer for consumers than 5G.

In-house sources say that, contrary to popular belief, there are numerous patents protecting Wi-Fi technologies that automotive companies will have to license in Europe to meet the EU’s connectivity standard.

“With each new version of the technology, we get new patents,” says the licensing manager at a car manufacturer. “And there are patent trolls out there who will be keen to make sure that their licences are used.”

A senior researcher in the telecoms industry adds: “With standard Wi-Fi we still have many patents in that space. It is not a technology without a requirement for licensing so I don’t think that’s even a justification for that decision. It may be a bit cheaper but not enough to base a decision on.”

As the world advances towards a 5G network, cars in Europe will have to use a long distance server to connect to other vehicles. Automotive makers will thus have to buy licences for both Wi-Fi and 5G technologies.

One source from a global telecoms company points out that connected cars are already running on 4G technology. He says that other than a small fleet of a few thousand Cadillacs in the US, Wi-Fi technology has not been used in cars anywhere in the world. Europe alone has 100,000 connected cars using 4G connectivity.

“To make it very clear, if you look at the proposal on the table it is clearly a bad decision,” he says.

An automotive source adds: “We have 4G already, and we need long distance communication. There is no getting around that. It cannot be done with Wi-Fi.”

While all of the sources who spoke to Patent Strategy are against the proposed legislation, there are players in the automotive industry, such as Renault and Volkswagen, who spoke out in favour of Wi-Fi. Patent Strategy approached both car manufacturers but they were unavailable for comment.

“Even Volkswagen doesn’t argue that 5G should be the standard,” claims an automotive licensing manager. “They know the technology will come, and that it’s only a matter of time.

“Other car companies might be pro-Wi-Fi because it is an old technology that these companies started preparing for a long time ago and they think it is largely unpatented. But that is not the case.”

While automotive makers could see themselves footing the bill for both Wi-Fi and 5G licences, the real cost might be the infrastructure needed to support short range Wi-Fi technology. Sources say taxpayers would end up shouldering the cost.

“If you want to do autonomous driving with only Wi-Fi, every traffic circle would have to be a Wi-Fi point. So there need to be cost factors considered in that infrastructure. Then it becomes a matter of asking: ‘Who is going to pay for these points?’” says the licensing counsel for an automotive maker.

With infrastructure needed to support short-range Wi-Fi even in the most isolated regions of Europe, potential costs could skyrocket. One telecoms source said: “If you think of the cost for the public sector of putting these Wi-Fi road side units, the cost is much higher than using the 5G infrastructure that will be put in place for telecommunications. On the vehicle side, the majority of the vehicles being deployed today already have cellular activity so there is no real need to add Wi-Fi.”

The draft legislation has moved to the 28-member European Council for ratification after passing the Parliament by 304 to 207 votes.

The commissioner for transport in the EU Violeta Bulc said she prefers the older Wi-Fi standard because “it is easy to implement and cheap”.

She cited a study by the University of Michigan that said if Wi-Fi technology was ubiquitous and instantly available in all vehicles it could cut road fatalities by 12%. The problem for many in the industry is that just because Wi-Fi is old, it is not necessarily good.

An in-house lawyer for an automotive manufacturer adds: “Businesses might have done some lobbying because 5G is very clearly Asia-dominated. If we go forward with 5G connectivity as the standard, it will be an Asian supply side economy.

“In principle, we have to understand that 5G cannot be done without companies such as Huawei.”

In the slow lane

The impact of the higher licensing costs for autonomous vehicle stakeholders could be a delay for the roll-out of 5G technology in Europe, according to automotive and telecoms sources.

“This decision would be disastrous for Europe. China, America, and Australia are all developing 5G technology,” says a senior director at a telecoms company.

The fear of falling behind other markets led more than 20 CEOs from telecoms and car industry giants such as Ford, Nokia, Samsung, and BMW to sign a letter addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, explaining how the Commission’s preference for Wi-Fi-based technology would place Europe behind other regions in the advancement of connected and driverless cars.

They wrote: “This places Europe at an economic disadvantage compared with other regions of the world including China and the US…such a decision would stunt the overall emergence of 5G connectivity infrastructure in Europe, and run counter to the objectives of the Commission’s own 5G action plan, which aims to promote early deployment of 5G along major transport paths.”

Sources say that there is no other place in the world that wants to deploy Wi-Fi technology apart from Japan. China and the US are all developing connected cars that rely on 4G technology, and future cars will rely on 5G technology.

A licensing director for an automotive maker tells Patent Strategy that if the Parliament’s decision becomes law, it could have a stifling effect on the industry.

“By having to develop the infrastructure for two systems, car companies would have to build a lot from scratch,” he says.

Such a decision in Europe is unprecedented; according to multiple sources the Commission has never intervened to set technological standards.

“The risk is that the European Parliament and the European Commission are not making decisions that I would call technologically agnostic. And that is a strange standard,” says a car manufacturer licensing director.

Detecting a deer in headlights

The original intention of the draft legislation was to make driverless and connected cars safer. Industry sources speculate that the assumption by the Commission was that because Wi-Fi is 15 years old it must be safer than newer and untested technologies.

A researcher for a telecoms company says: “The automotive industry has not been testing this technology for a long time, and as of today, it is not being deployed anywhere.” This is because as connected vehicles have developed over the last decade, the industry naturally moved to 4G networks that can support short and long-range communication.

The use cases for safety features have all been tested using 4G short-range communication, not Wi-Fi. Sources gave Patent Strategy the example of brake lights in connected cars that use 4G communication to alert drivers that a car is coming to an emergency stop.

A director for connected cars at a telecom company comments: “Many cars are doing this via the 4G network which means you would get the information 1km from the traffic jam instead of 200m which you would get with Wi-Fi. Our issue is that this is not addressed in the regulation. The first draft ignored the new technology that is already on the road.”

Another issue not addressed in the draft legislation is the “piling nature of data” with Wi-Fi. If you have a high concentration of vehicles in one space, the Wi-Fi might not be able to support all of the communication.

“It could be that 5G will be able to perform where Wi-Fi cannot. 5G is very clearly better science and has a higher data rate. So there is a safety issue here, but not the one the Commission is thinking of,” says the licensing director for the automotive industry.

If Wi-Fi is the preferred standard it could lead to more traffic jams and data jams that could be avoided using the current 4G network and the eventual 5G network.

In the meantime, telecoms companies and automotive makers will continue connecting cars with 4G technology while preparing for the roll-out of 5G. Their biggest concern looking ahead is the cloud of uncertainty about whether or not the draft legislation will become law.

As the director for connected vehicles for a telecoms company tells Patent Strategy: “The best-case scenario is that they delay the regulation until the Commission changes, which would give us time to develop 4G and 5G on an equal basis with Wi-Fi.”