Straight Talk on the “Talking Car” Mandate

Will another driver’s car “talking” with yours someday save your life? The answer, from regulators and many automakers, is a resounding “Yes.” Such a promising technology should have many takers. So why are federal regulators seeking to force it on the public?

To that end, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the final days of the Obama administration proposed a new regulation that would mandate all new light vehicles to be installed with technology to enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. The proposal aims to require cars to connect to one another at a distance of up to 300 meters, to allow the transmission of direction, speed, and braking information that could alert drivers to approaching hazards, such as stalled vehicles and drivers running red lights. NHTSA estimates that by 2060, for a cost of up to $109 billion—the second-most expensive car regulation this decade—the mandated technology could save between 987 and 1,365 lives annually.

That is the narrative advanced by proponents of a forced V2V regulation. Unfortunately, it ignores key challenges facing widespread deployment—and thereby any consumer benefits. The proposal relies heavily on an obsolete communications protocol, to the detriment of superior competing technologies. This protocol, called dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), has enjoyed exclusive use of certain airwaves allocated by the Federal Communications Commission in 1999.

This largely unused block of radio spectrum sits immediately adjacent to the frequencies used by Wi-Fi devices, which face growing congestion problems. The cable and wireless industries have been lobbying to gain access to this spectrum block, arguing that current policy has resulted in billions of dollars in lost economic opportunity. Indeed, one study estimates that allowing Wi-Fi devices to share this spectrum would result in benefits to the economy between $191 and $744 billion dollars.

NHTSA also envisions the installation of nearly 20,000 roadside equipment units across the nation’s highways. The agency concedes it does not yet know who would operate this new infrastructure network, let alone how it will be funded and maintained. Yet, the answer to safer roadways is in plain sight.

The private sector has been working on V2V technologies to harness existing cellular networks, an approach that would address the operations, funding, and maintenance issues that have stumped the government for years. A number of these innovations are already standard in cars on the road today.

If that weren’t enough to wave the government away from an unnecessary, burdensome regulation: privacy and cybersecurity concerns loom large in this proposed rule, given the importance of maintaining safety data integrity. NHTSA proposes encrypting messages with digital certificates to limit misuse, but the agency was unable to develop any regulatory text, leaving a glaring, bracketed gap in the proposed rule. The public and outside experts deserve the opportunity to evaluate this critical element.

NHTSA, recognizing its legal limitations and expected public anxiety over privacy and cybersecurity, suggests that any wireless update of V2V software or supply of additional digital certificates should require owner consent. The agency opposes allowing consumers to opt out of V2V, but requiring consent prior to updates provides consumers a backdoor opt-out. If an owner refuses a critical software update or fails to replenish digital certificates, the DSRC-run V2V device becomes inoperative. But this technology only works if it’s widely deployed, a Catch-22 in this scenario.

NHTSA proposes to mitigate this problem by requiring that telltale lamps or dashboard messages prod owners to accept updates. But given that nearly 10 percent of vehicles on the road today display a “check engine” light and the expected public objections to mandated V2V, NHTSA ought to consider how “apathy rates” as well as “misuse rates” could affect deployment.

And several automakers want NHTSA to pump the brakes. Tesla Motors has warned the agency that “the implementation of V2V communications will exponentially increase the cybersecurity attack surface of a vehicle’s interrelated systems” and that the rise of onboard sensors to enable autonomous driving “will outpace the rulemaking trajectory of V2V communications.” Thus, the company “questions the need for this rulemaking.” Mercedes also weighed in with similar cautions.

Federal regulators and traditional automakers have invested considerable time and resources into V2V. Vehicle connectivity itself is not the problem. But the technology contemplated in the proposed mandate will be a decade out of date by the time the phase-in begins and two decades obsolete at the projected cost-benefit break-even point, around 2030.

The uncomfortable truth is that early V2V adopters can expect to enjoy nonexistent to trivial safety benefits, as V2V only provides benefits when a significant percentage of the nation’s auto fleet is equipped with the technology. It is projected to take decades before adoption reaches a level where drivers have greater than a coin-flip’s chance of V2V preventing a crash.

In contrast, vehicles with automated systems along the lines of those being developed by numerous private firms—from automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping to full self-driving vehicles—can deliver immediate benefits to consumers and the long-term safety potential is far greater than that of V2V hazard warnings.

Rather than mandate V2V, or any other technology, federal regulators should adopt a hands-off approach to the rapidly evolving auto technology landscape. Allowing the private sector to continue to develop innovative ways to improve auto safety is the best way to prevent crashes and save lives.