Bring on the connected cars. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Tech and transportation are now traveling the same (cellular) wavelength.

If you work in transportation and enjoy schmoozing, you made a tough choice this week. Do you hit sunny Las Vegas for the big annual Consumer Electronics Show, where self-driving, on-demand cars, smart streetlights, and flying taxis herald the future of mobility? Or do you kick it at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., where thousands of academics, government officials, and policy influencers are debating how to get there? If you’re like CityLab, it’s TRB time.

(TRB is more fun than it sounds, by the way. The asphalt lobbyists supposedly throw a pretty sick afterparty.)

The technology and transportation fields are so deeply intertwined today that that folks in both often say they can’t afford to work in silos. One thoroughly CES topic that’s getting more discussion at TRB this year: 5G.

5G is the next (and fifth) generation of wireless service. It’s supposed to be super fast, super reliable, and highly adaptable to different kinds of uses. Rumors of its arrival stretch back years, and there are a lot of “small cell” connections to build. But AT&T and Verizon have now both promised 5G service in a handful of U.S. markets by the end of 2018. T-Mobile says it’s at work on a “nationwide” network by 2020.

The anticipation isn’t just about better phone connections and faster video downloads on your phone. 5G is also supposed to handle the surge of data-generating digital devices in our present and future—smart appliances, robotic food servers, virtual-reality headsets, and cars that “talk” to each other and the road. It’s those connected and autonomous vehicles that are coming up at TRB this year.

In a panel on data privacy and surface transportation, Lauren Smith, a policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, described the staggering variety, connectivity, and volume of data that the cars of the future will generate. Newer vehicles have long pumped out diagnostic information, “but that used to be stored on board,” she said. On connected and autonomous vehicles, lidar imagery will be beamed back to car makers. GPS units will signal the car’s location up to satellites. Navigation apps and entertainment displays will communicate with third parties in the cloud. Cars will exchange speed, mileage, location data, and license plate numbers with each another, and perhaps with brainy streetlights.

(Future of Privacy Forum)

That’s the idea, at least. But it’s not entirely clear how all that much data can be transmitted. (For context, here’s the CEO of Intel, Brian Krzanich, talking about future data-loads circa 2016: “The average person today generates about 600 to 700 megabits a day. By 2020, the estimate is 1.5 gigabytes a day for the average person,” Krzanich said. And for cars, “we’re talking like 3,000 times” that much.) Years ago, federal officials set aside a special wireless spectrum just for surface transportation, called “dedicated short-range communication” (DSRC), believing it would be a reliable way for vehicles and road infrastructure to transmit safety information without competing for cellular bandwidth.

But now, many automakers are pushing for 5G to be the standard conduit for car communications. Witness companies like VW, Ford and Daimler forming coalitions like the “5G Automotive Association,” and partnering with cellular chipmakers to facilitate the 5G roll-out. And most telecom companies are pushing for 5G to underpin connected vehicles—in fact, Comcast pointed out self-driving cars as one justification for supporting the repeal of net neutrality, arguing that canceling Obama-era internet regulations would help speed up 5G deployment. (That’s a contested claim—many argue that only more competition between internet companies will do that.)

Which technology is better? Federal policy makers haven’t made an official ruling. “They don’t want to predict the future and”—to draw a comparison—“mandate Beta when VHS is the better choice,” said Greg Rodriguez, a lawyer who specializes in regulations surrounding emerging forms of mobility. But there are safety concerns about cars relying on a cellular network: A patchy connection could lead to loss of control over the vehicle. And, again, vehicles on 5G might have to compete for their slice of the spectrum with all the other devices that are piling on. Which would you choose: a fully downloaded YouTube video, or your self-driving Lyft knowing that the light just turned red?

Meanwhile, the FCC ruling to undo net neutrality rules (which some in Congress are currently attempting to challenge) opens up all sorts of tin-hattish questions about the cars of the future. Already, film studios and television distributors are salivating over the prospect of employing autonomous cars as the roving personal cinemas of the future. (To be sure: If your eyes don’t need to be glued to the road, they’re gonna be stuck on a screen.) With internet and media companies already merging into vertically integrated, content-churning monoliths, it isn’t impossible to imagine a future where, say, AT&T inks a deal with Uber to offer, say, premium HBO shows onboard 5G-connected vehicles, Rodriguez said. Sounds like one ultra-connected, monopolistic universe.

It’s all still theoretical, and this future is still a way’s out. But, conceivably, a lack of net neutrality rules could have safety implications for vehicles that rely solely on 5G, Smith told me. With internet service providers given more discretion to determine the types of content that get access to high-speed transfers, it could be more expensive for carmakers to utilize their connections. “That could crowd out certain uses, and in some some transportation uses, you might need to optimize for speed in a way that isn’t as life-critical for other technologies,” said Smith. “If that make them costlier or slower, that could be a real impediment.”

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