Few technological advancements bring to mind the American spirit of innovation like Henry Ford and his Model T. In the wake of his transportation innovation, the horse and buggy became an anachronism as the mass-produced automobile reshaped our cities, led to the emergence (for better or worse) of the suburbs, and revolutionized how we move goods and people.
Now, there’s little doubt that autonomous vehicles are the next frontier of transportation. These vehicles are projected to make our roads safer, potentially reducing fatalities by orders of magnitude. Along the way, however, there are a number of roadblocks to surmount: infrastructure issues, restrictive state licensing policies, driver education, cybersecurity and privacy vulnerabilities, and more. For innovators, regulators, and policymakers, solving these problems will involve a long to-do list, but a pointless regulatory scuffle over technology standards should not be on it.
So why is the federal agency responsible for our road safety looking to introduce a totally avoidable roadblock to automotive innovation by mandating a severely flawed technological standard for vehicle communications?
Here’s the debate: Autonomous vehicles of the future will need to communicate with each other and the infrastructure around them, signaling to avoid collisions and informing other cars about traffic and road conditions. Cars will need to sense pedestrians and wildlife, and generally become better drivers than we are. There are two leading contenders for how this communication will happen: Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) and next-generation wireless 5G networks.
Some auto manufacturers have already placed their bets: The 2017 Cadillac CTS sedan rolled out with DSRC technology earlier this year, right around the time Volkswagen announced all of its autonomous vehicles will be powered by 5G. Sensors like light image detecting and radar (LIDAR), cameras, and GPS-based technologies already help cars automatically brake, keep vehicles in the proper lanes, and warn drivers of impending obstructions. Here, safety and innovation are complementary concepts.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in the process of carrying out a 2016 mandate for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication standards. Supporting V2V communications standards is a laudable goal. But the technology should be developed through a competitive market-oriented process, not imposed by government regulators.
Unfortunately, NHTSA has already made a choice on behalf of innovators: DSRC. At best, this is a waste of time, money, and government resources. At worst, this is a decision that could chill a generation of vehicular innovation and safety.
Imagine if the government had demanded that Henry Ford equip every one of his Model Ts with telegraph machines that could only communicate with other Model Ts. A 19th century communications technology mandated for use in a 20th century innovation would have been a crushing blow to innovation and competition in the emerging automobile industry. That’s precisely what is happening with the DSRC mandate, and the same potential for future innovation is at risk with its implementation.
Technology mandates almost never make sense. In this case, it’s almost impossible to understand what NHTSA could be thinking.
Unlike other technologies we use today, a DSRC unit is useless in preventing a collision unless the other vehicle involved in the collision is also equipped with a DSRC unit. So drivers of the new, DSRC-enabled Cadillac will surely avoid other 2017 Cadillac CTS sedans, but not much else. And the technology must be available in a critical mass of cars to be beneficial for consumers. Some guessed that initial deployment of DSRC would be underway by 2006. That was seven years after the Clinton Administration’s Federal Communications Commission gave automakers exclusive license to the necessary spectrum.
But here we are, nearly two decades later, and still nothing. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a 2015 pilot deployment report from the Department of Transportation identified numerous failings of DSRC, from “device and interoperability issues” to cost overruns and delays.
What’s more: The annual price tag of a DSRC mandate is estimated at upwards of $5 billion even after the many decades full implementation will take, and between $0.3 billion and $6.4 billion annually until then. This is the second-most expensive car-related regulation in over a decade after the most recent CAFE standards. That means consumers will pay more for cars but won’t reap any of the benefits until the technology is implemented at a massive scale, which could take 20 to 30 years.
As if that all wasn’t bad enough, DSRC has serious unresolved cybersecurity risks, which make a mandate to use this technology irresponsible, if not outright dangerous. Cybersecurity expert Alex Kreilein recently noted the standard’s “weak privacy protections” and a susceptibility to “spread malware” in a report and filing to NHTSA.
The government shouldn’t be picking which V2V standard will dominate the next few decades, especially one wracked by so many shortcomings. The last two decades of inaction on DSRC—and the vibrant ecosystem of car safety technology that has developed in the vacuum—show us that regulators cannot decide the future of car travel. This could lock up innovation and technological progress on American roadways for decades to come.
Agency resources are only getting more scarce. And truly, those resources—time, energy, and labor—should be redirected to better uses. The government should steer clear and let the innovators, not the bureaucrats, lead. The DSRC mandate should be left in the dustbin.
Otherwise, innovation and technological progress might end up in its place.