Volkswagen last week unveiled the eighth generation of its iconic Golf hatchback, sporting not just a fresh look but also V2X (vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure) communication skills.

Describing the new Golf as “digitalized, connected, and intuitive to operate,” the German carmaker boasted it is “the first Volkswagen to use swarm intelligence from traffic via Car2X.” As Volkswagen explains it, Car2X (or V2X) “can warn against hazards on an anticipatory basis.”

Translation: It can see what’s coming and duck.

Wireless connectivity can get the new vehicle such information as changing weather, signs, nearby accidents, hazardous road conditions, and the erratic behavior of nearby cars. That’s the promise of V2X.

Despite a socially conscious goal established more than 20 years ago to dramatically reduce fatalities by building wireless infrastructure dedicated for road safety, V2X has become one of the most politically charged tech battles of all time.

This heated argument, bankrolled by lobbyists and accelerated by the horse-race narratives enamored by the media, has split carmakers, tech suppliers and nations throughout the world into two camps: those who plan to use Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) for V2X now pitted against the promise of cellular-based technology for V2X, preferably 5G. 

DSRC, the incumbent technology, is a Wi-Fi variant known as 802.11p, operating in the 5.9 GHz band. When cellular-based technology muscles its way into V2X, a clash is inevitable. They interfere with each other if operated on the same frequency channel because there are differences between the wireless systems.

Click here for larger image
DSRC vs. Cellular-V2X (Source: Autotalks)

Click here for larger image

DSRC vs. Cellular-V2X (Source: Autotalks)

V2X in volume cars
Volkswagen’s decision to adopt DSRC over 5G for its V2X is a big deal, because it takes the German carmaker beyond a mere trial or the tepid adoption of DSRC only in luxury cars.

“We are talking about volume adoption of V2X in mass-market vehicles,” explained Lars Reger, CTO of NXP Semiconductors, in an interview with EE Times. In his estimation, this is the first time V2X has crossed the chasm from never-ending tech debates to the commercial volume market.

Of course, NXP, which got a big design win for its DRSC chips with the Golf, has every reason to be hopeful that VW's commitment to DSRC in a mass-market model will prompt more commercial adoptions among car makers who have spent years talking about V2X but doing little.

It remains far from clear, however, what impact, if any, Volkswagen’s new Golf might have, given that the automotive market is getting split on the subject not only on corporate lines, but on national lines as well, with one camp pledging allegiance to the DSCR version of WiFi while the other is swayed by the furious lobbying of 5G promoters.

Reportedly, General Motors, NXP, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo are on WiFi’s side. BMW, Daimler, Ford, Huawei, Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung, on the other hand, are backing 5G.

European nations are also spilt. A vote at the European Council of ministers last July resulted in 21 EU member states — including Germany, France and Italy — out of 28 opposing an April EC proposal urging them to choose WiFi over 5G.

Advocates for declaring DSRC already dead and moving on with 5G welcomed the news, calling it 5G’s victory on V2X.

More accurately, though, the outcome of the July vote (which reversed EC’s original decision to choose DSRC over 5G) means that Europe is putting the V2X debate back to the drawing board again. The newly elected European Commission must draft a new proposal to the European Parliament and Council with a “neutral” approach. 

Meanwhile, companies who have spent more than a decade in testing, validating, documenting and perfecting DSRC technology believe the July vote was influenced politically by telecom lobbyist group ETNO, whose members reportedly have spent billions of dollars investing in 5G.

Germany is going to experience parallel V2X development, at least for the time being. BMW is pitching 5G-equipped luxury cars while Volkswagen will be pushing DSRC-based V2X for mid- and lower-priced volume vehicles.

But given the tortuous development of V2X throughout the world, it is time to reflect and evaluate what has really happened. Regardless of the wireless technology adopted (DSRC or 5G), two questions remain unanswered:

1) Will the mass adoption of V2X ever take place?

2) Was V2X just a sales pitch by companies who claimed they wanted to save people’s lives but never meant it?

‘5G is not ready’
EE Times sat down with NXP’s CTO and asked him how he sees V2X panning out. 

Lars Reger, NXP CTO (Source: NXP)
Lars Reger, NXP CTO (Source: NXP)

On one hand, the European Council vote in July, heavily favoring 5G, seems like a big blow to those who have supported DSRC for more than 15 years.

On the other hand, Reger remains remarkably optimistic. He believes the implementation of V2X in Europe will barrel through, despite political upheaval, in favor of DSRC (802.11p).

How so? For a single reason, he said: “5G is not ready.”

He noted, “In the end, 5G isn’t the alternative. How long do you think it will take for enough cars to have 5G systems on board?”

Indeed, 5G-based V2X still has a lot of catching up to do. The standards body has barely begun the rigorous testing, which DSRC already went through years ago.

Moreover, DSRC supporters are convinced that the biggest barrier to entry for 5G-based V2X installation remains cost.

The industry can’t just put 5G modems inside cars. It will also have to attach 5G cellular chips and beacons on traffic lights, traffic signs, roadside units, construction signs, roadside assistance and ambulance services to enable vehicle-to-infrastructure. Reger asked, “Can you imagine spending hundreds of dollars for each?”  On the other hand, he noted, “We already have industrial-grade, highly precise, ultra-robust [DSRC] chips designed to be resistant to hacking.”

Then, there is the issue of SIM cards.

DSRC, in principle, is SIM card-free WiFi. In vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, nobody should be charged extra, noted Reger.

5G may not charge for V2X communication either, but the reality is that no 5G-V2X can exist without a 5G SIM card. The inevitable question is: who will pay for the card?

Even if car OEMs foot the bill to enable 5G telematic units, mobile network operators see 5G-enabled vehicles — each with a 5G SIM card — as a platform for additional revenue streams. Cellular operators hope to charge vehicle users for all the 5G apps they will use. But in Reger’s book, consumers “shouldn’t be held hostage by mobile network operators. V2V is a safety feature.”

When politics meet technology
For those of us who don’t live in Europe, the seeming political coup that swept the V2X debate in the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council is hard to comprehend.

We asked Reger what led to an EC transport commissioner’s April decision to choose WiFi over 5G for V2X, only to see that choice flipped by vote of the EU member states in July. What was that about?

This started out as a “debate on the frequency band on the corridor, where 802.11p is communicating in 5.9GHz range (basically a normal Wi-Fi frequency band),” Reger said. “This was the band protected for secure V2X communication — basically for mission-critical communication.”

He went on, “Now, the cellular guys came in, tried to lobby the opening of this frequency band,” because they, too, wanted to use it. The only issue was, said Reger, that DSRC-based V2X is already communicating in that band. “The cellular parts — if they would come in there — would just shout louder than the normal V2X, thus disturbing the DSRC communication.”

After deliberations, a committee concluded that new investment should not destroy an incumbent technology already in use, Reger explained. In his mind, this is common sense. “You don’t bring into a home a new technology that destroys the wireless signals already in use.”

From NXP’s stand point, Reger said, “We have asked the industry for 15 years to develop V2X system that’s robust and hardened. We now already have it. Please launch it.”

EC transport commissioner Violeta Bulc last April in a media interview expressed similar views. Asked why she so strongly advocates WiFi over 5G for V2X, she said:

It’s quite simple really. First, WiFi is a proven technology and has almost no patents on it anymore. It’s available now, is easy to implement and it’s cheap. It’s affordable for everyone. One of the main political points during my mandate was to improve road safety and set up a systemic approach to it. I suffer personally when I see that 25,000 people lose their lives every year and 137,000 are seriously injured.

Now, people want us to wait three or four years in case the new technology becomes available. We have technology that can be deployed now and can save lives. I don’t want to be part of those statistics. I don’t want my kids, my friends, anyone a part of those three-year statistics because we had the technology and didn’t act.

Violeta Bulc (Source: EC)
Violeta Bulc (Source: EC)

Asked why a choice between WiFi and 5G is even necessary, she stated: “WiFi is the only option that is available. We will issue a call for testing 5G but there is no product on the market today that we could test, set standards for or deploy. There is nothing on the market.” Further, touching on 5G lobbying activities, she complained, “Being an engineer by profession, I am annoyed by misleading information out there that says WiFi is challenging existing business models of 5G. It’s not challenging any of the development or deployment of 5G, because they serve a completely different purpose. I would advocate that car-to-car signaling should be free. This should be a service offered on the same level as emergency calls, no-one should make profit out of it.”

Despite EC Commissioner Bulc’s decision to go with WiFi today, instead of waiting for 5G, she was overturned at the July vote at the European Council. Reger believes that 5G lobbyist swayed politicians who were afraid to be viewed by the public as making the wrong move.

But not everyone sees the European Council’s vote as a total rejection of DSRC. Following the vote, Bulc issued a statement: “We will therefore continue to work together with member states to address their concerns and find a suitable way forward.”

NXP-Qualcomm deal that didn’t come
It is wrong to paint NXP’s Reger as a die-hard DSRC advocate. He has shown flexibility and a willingness to compromise when Qualcomm’s NXP acquisition was under way. At that time, EE Times asked Reger if the two might eventually merge, how NXP is planning to end what looks like a religious war between DSRC (promoted by NXP) and 5G (advocated by Qualcomm). He responded then, “There is no issue.  It’s just that a WiFi-based solution was developed 10 years earlier than 5G. I don’t see any problems in moving from one [DSRC] to another [5G] for V2X over time.”

Asked to elaborate what he told us then, Reger explained: “I was [then] dreaming of something like a world receiver which can receive [data coming from] either DSRC or 5G in the same band. [The plan was] just filtering out the messages, listening to what’s coming in and answering what needs to go out.”

Reger then thought, “Who cares which standard is used for sending and receiving messages? Consumers don’t care how SMS they just received came to them, either via 3G, 4G, WiFi or 5G.”

eCall experience
This pragmatic attitude comes from a playbook Reger learned when he worked on the development of technology to support Europe’s eCall requirements.

Europe’s eCall initiative was born in the early 2000s, seeking to make every car automatically ring for assistance during an accident. Similar to V2X, the basic principle was welcomed but different nations ended up in disagreeing over the innards of the eCall box, technologies to transmit the emergency message (GPRS; in-band signaling) and diverging communication protocols.

Given the proximity of European countries, having to deal with different eCall technical standards in different geography posed a major obstacle. Determined to make eCall a reality across Europe, Reger reasoned then, “I don’t care which technology standard the British, French or German choose. I would solve the problem technically.” He said, “You will get from me a universal emergency Call unit. I don’t care where the messages are coming from, and which languages you would like to have them transmitted. The box can switch, if you like, in a millisecond, to the right language and to the right standard. The box will handle all messages.”

This lingua franca model, which led to the successful public demonstration of the technology, eventually won the hearts and minds of European regulators.

Global V2X solution?
Asked if a similar universal approach could apply to the V2X impasse, Reger doesn’t see now as the right time.

Autotalks, an Israeli-based fabless chip company, for example, already launched a “global V2X solution” that integrates a Cellular-V2X feature with native support for DSRC.

Reger isn’t totally dismissing the eventual coexistence of DSRC and 5G. Once the cellular-based standard is tested, proven and ready for production, the door could open. However, as he once wrote in his blog, 5G and DSRC “can co-exist and they can be synergistic to a degree, but the safety-relevant features will be covered by 802.11p.”

Network effect can be expected
Expected to come next with V2X, at least in Germany, is a clear schism between BMW’s 5G-equipped luxury cars, and Volkswagen enabling V2X through DSRC in volume vehicles.

Asked if these diverging V2X realities might ever meet in Germany, Reger said, after a pause, “It’s hard to judge.” But Volkswagen has one huge advantage, he noted. “They own every third or second car on German roads. If every 10th car has Car2Car communication feature, we’ve simulated that you can pretty much already accurately measure any traffic zone,” where things are jammed up. “Beyond that threshold, it gets fun.”

In other words, carmakers in smaller volume gain little from the network effect of V2V. “They either join the club,” said Reger, “or they won’t benefit.”

V2X can let other cars know an ambulance approaching intersection ahead (Source: NXP)

Certainly, the V2X story is still evolving. In Reger’s mind, a whole lot of VWs are the likely trigger to change the narrative for DSRC-based V2X.