A Range Rover Evoque with Valeo self-parking technology uses sensors and cameras to “look” for a free parking spot during a driverless-car demo last month in Las Vegas. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The air may seem endless, but the airwaves are not, and automotive and technology experts fear that competition for them may impede their visionary future of the automobile.

The Transportation Department announced Monday that it was moving forward with what’s known as “connected vehicle technology,” the first step toward driverless vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the announcement was a watershed moment in the nation’s transportation history — akin to the launch of the interstate highway system or a “moonshot.” He said connecting all of the nation’s vehicles could reduce non-alcohol-related traffic accidents by as much as 80 percent, preventing roughly 5.1 million accidents a year and saving 18,000 lives.

They system creates the capacity for cars to communicate directly with the other cars around them using onboard computers and a slice of airwave bandwidth.

But decisions governing bandwidth use are the province of the Federal Communications Commission. In a letter to the FCC, signed by more than 60 automakers, academics and transportation officials, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America appealed to he federal agency to protect the necessary bandwidth from encroachment.

Regulators plan to propose new rules requiring technology aimed at avoiding accidents. (Reuters)

“With over 30,000 deaths on our nation’s roads every year, we also believe it is critical that efforts to open up additional spectrum do not come at the expense of revolutionary life-saving technologies,” the letter said.

While FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reassured Congress last month that the frequency to be used to connect cars would be protected, his agency may once more be cast in the role of Solomon as the White House supports both expansion of WiFi and the promise of connected-vehicle technology.

Two years ago, the FCC squelched a multibillion-dollar initiative by Reston-based LightSquared, which promised to provide WiFi throughout the country. The company wanted to use a bandwidth next to the one that carries GPS signals, and GPS proponents joined forces with the aviation industry with concerns that WiFi would disrupt their signal

The 5.9GHz bandwidth is currently reserved for connected-vehicle use, but a proposal backed by cable operators would have the frequency shared with connected vehicles.

The quandary with sharing bandwidth is fairly simple: No one is quite sure how to do it. Even the discussion of it quickly becomes confused. If a vehicle is using WiFi and a connected-vehicle message comes in — “icy pavement ahead, prepare to brake” — does that safety warning override the WiFi signal? On a rural road, that might be an easy decision, but what about the on the Capital Beltway, where connected-vehicle messages might arrive 10 times a second? Wouldn’t that effectively render WiFi useless?

“The automobile manufacturers are working right now with the WiFi industry and the cable industry to look for a sharing protocol,” said Scott F. Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “If they can agree that the protocol has legs, then it'll have to be tested.”

Belcher said there are instances in which bandwidth is shared, but none where the frequencies shared involve potentiality life-threatening circumstances, as they would with vehicle-to-vehicle technology.

Asked if the automotive safety advance should rank ahead of WiFi expansion, he said: “I hope so. It’s a building-block technology.”

Nearly half of the crashes examined by the Highway Loss Data Institute involve rear-end collisions, a type of accident that information-swapping between cars could virtually eliminate.

David J. Friedman, acting director of the National Highway Traffic Administration, said whether or not the same bandwidth is used, “safety will not be compromised.” He said the search is still on for a method that WiFi can use without interfering with car-to-car communication.

“I don’t think we’re at that point yet, which is why we’re doing a lot of work to study this exact question,” Friedman said. “If the technology can advance to the point where it can be shared, then great, all the better for everyone.”

Greg Winfree, head of research and technology at the Transportation Department, said highway safety has to trump the desire for universal WiFi access.

“We’re not opposed to spectrum sharing. What we’re opposed to is interference,” Winfree said. “My confidence level is high because [the National Telecommunications and Information Administration], FCC and the manufacturers understand what our goals are and we’ve been working collaboratively to find technical solutions. We've got all the creative minds at the table.”

Grant Seiffert, president of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), said his group would continue to work on a sharing solution that would allow companies they represent expanded WiFi bandwidth.

“We look forward to working with the FCC and other federal agencies to determine how other low-power unlicensed technologies such as WiFi can share this radio spectrum,” Seiffert said.

NHTSA has been conducting a pilot program with 3,000 connected cars in Ann Arbor, Mich., that will test the reliability of the technology.

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