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Next-gen car technology just got another big upgrade

An Uber driverless car waits in traffic during a test drive in San Francisco on Dec. 13. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Federal regulators have approved a big swath of new airwaves for vehicle radar devices, opening the door to cheaper, more precise sensors that may accelerate the arrival of high-tech, next-generation cars.

Many consumer vehicles already use radar for collision avoidance, automatic lane-keeping and other purposes. But right now, vehicle radar is divided into a couple of different chunks of the radio spectrum. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to consolidate these chunks — and added a little more, essentially giving extra bandwidth to vehicle radar.

“While we enthusiastically harness new technology that will ultimately propel us to a driverless future, we must maintain our focus on safety — and radar applications play an important role,” said Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic FCC commissioner.

Radar is a key component not only in today’s computer-assisted cars, but also in the fully self-driving cars of the future. There, the technology is even more important because it helps the computer make sound driving decisions.

Thursday’s decision by the FCC lets vehicle radar take advantage of all airwaves ranging from frequencies of 76 GHz to 81 GHz — reflecting an addition of four extra gigahertz — and ends support for the technology in the 24 GHz range.

Expanding the amount of airwaves devoted to vehicle radar could also make air travel safer, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, by allowing for the installation of radar devices on the wingtips of airplanes.

“Wingtip collisions account for 25 percent of all aircraft ground incidents,” said Pai. “Wingtip radars on aircraft may help with collision avoidance on the tarmac, among other areas.”

Although many analysts say fully self-driving cars are still years away from going mainstream, steps like these could help bring that future just a bit more within reach.