You may have noticed that the hashtag #NetNeutrality has dominated social media streams over the last few days, even eclipsing such leading discussions as #metoo and #LastJedi. The reason—as you probably already know—is that the Federal Communications Commission voted on December 14, 2017, to repeal its “net neutrality” rules—a set of Obama-era regulations that prohibited internet service providers from charging users more for certain content, a practice known as “paid prioritization.” The debate around this move has been heated, with celebrities, watchdog groups, social media influencers and late-night talk show hosts all rallying around the cause of equal access to online content. In the hours since the vote, these same voices have been somber, predicting a doubling in price for Netflix subscriptions and squelching of unpopular voices.
As with most political subjects, however, the issues here are more nuanced than they first appear. Keep in mind that it is not my intent to discuss the merits of the vote one way or another, or to take issue with the arguments in favor of maintaining net neutrality. Instead, the point of this post is merely to observe that there is at least one industry influencing the decision to repeal the regulation that you may not have expected—an industry championed by many of the same tech giants who have argued so stridently in favor of net neutrality.
And that’s the connected and autonomous car industry.
General Motors has staked a large part of its future on the autonomous vehicle market, so much so that it announced a few weeks ago that it plans to roll out its own fleets of robotic taxis by 2019—years earlier than other OEMs are aiming for. In order to maximize the ability to understand driving conditions, detect their surroundings, and keep occupants safe, these vehicles rely on a wide array of digital input. A lot of that will come from onboard sensors, but a large percentage of it will also come from roadside transmitters, other vehicles, and—potentially—internet cloud connections. In other words, connected and autonomous cars will be just one more set of participants in the Internet of Things (IoT)—albeit more socially impactful than the average device. Delays of even microseconds in transmitting safety-critical information to and from cars could make the difference between life and death for occupants or pedestrians. Even delays in less critical, but still important, data such as weather, traffic patterns and the like could quite conceivably hamper the efficiency of an autonomous fleet.
Therefore, when the net neutrality rules were first proposed (and adopted) in 2014, GM quickly aligned itself with the ISPs opposed to government intervention. At a minimum, GM warned that any regulation should be narrowly tailored, urging the FCC to “retain the critical distinction” among rules for fixed and mobile Internet traffic and arguing that new limitations for the mobile industry may set precedents that constrain and discourage innovation in connected cars. “From our point of view,” GM said in the letter, “mobile broadband being delivered to a car moving at 75 mph down a highway—or for that matter, stuck in a massive spontaneous traffic jam—is a fundamentally different phenomenon from a wired broadband connection to a consumer’s home, and merits continued consideration under distinct rules that take this into account.”
When the net neutrality debate reignited this year, ISPs echoed these concerns to support their position that the regulation should be repealed. Comcast, for example, argued to the FCC that “for autonomous vehicles that may require instantaneous data transmission, black letter prohibitions on paid prioritization may actually stifle innovation instead of encouraging it.”
To be sure, advocates of net neutrality had responses to these arguments. They argued, for example, that cars don’t use the internet to communicate. Instead, they exchange data primarily over the Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) band. The FCC has already set aside spectrum in the 5.9GHz band for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) applications, including vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle-to-pedestrian (V2P). Although cars do connect to the internet, there are currently no safety-critical systems in the U.S. that rely on it. There is a competing frequency preferred by many European OEMs, however, called LTE-V, which relies on cell towers and may be more directly affected by net neutrality rules. Autonomous driving advocates have also warned that, because the technology is still so nascent and undeveloped, regulators should be loathe to adopt any rules that have even the possible unintended consequence of hindering research and development by reducing the number of available technological options. Indeed, the same argument has been made against the adoption of strict cybersecurity rules for autonomous vehicles.
It is also clear that other IoT providers are far more supportive of net neutrality. They worry that their devices—which range from smart thermostats to smart watches to smart toothbrushes—will be deemed less important than other internet traffic, and their data connections relegated to the “slow lanes.”
However this debate shakes out, this example perfectly illustrates how deep and wide society’s dependence on the internet has become, and how a change in the law regulating one sector of the economy can have massive and unintended consequences in another. Thirty years ago, the idea of cars being connected to cable television was so preposterous that it served as a comedic refrain in a Weird Al Yankovic song. Today, the leading titans in both of those industries have joined forces to exert as much control as they can over the infrastructure on which they both rely.
And, at the moment, they’re winning.