November 2, 2017

The Reports of V2V’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Yesterday, it was rumoured that the Department of Transportation (DOT)’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had scuttled a proposed vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication standard mandate. Updates from today, however, clarified that the DOT has yet to make any final ruling. As such, the reports of V2V’s death have apparently been greatly exaggerated.

But those reports suggesting the demise of the V2V mandate also left out a strikingly important detail. The proposed V2V mandate is not simply a mandate for any V2V technology on new automobiles, but for a very specific V2V standard: the dedicated short range communications (DSRC) standard.

As discussed in a previous post, mandating DSRC as the V2V standard for all new vehicles fails to consider that:

[i]nnovation from the private sector has been several steps ahead of DSRC from the start, and there is no reason to suspect that a DSRC mandate will actually increase public safety on American roads. Any benefits to consumer safety won’t emerge for many decades. By then, we’ll likely have technologies that make DSRC, already out of date by modern standards, look even more antiquated.

In addition, as the Niskanen Center noted in comments to NHTSA earlier this year, there remain many outstanding “concerns associated with privacy and cybersecurity, potential technological lock-in, and interoperability and other technical difficulties.” What’s more, this standard has been under development for almost two decades, and still won’t be ready for fleet-wide installation (that is, installed on every automobile on American roads) for decades to come. That is especially problematic, because unlike other V2V communications standards, DSRC only works if other vehicles are also using it.

In a May 2017 op-ed for Wired, I argued that mandating the use of DSRC was the equivalent of the government demanding:

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.

Finally, in a letter submitted to the Federal Communications Commission and NHTSA, the Niskanen Center pointed out the folly of pursuing this mandate in light of the many technical safety failings, interoperability issues, extended deployment timeframe, and failure to consider the ongoing development and proliferation of alternative communications standards. We concluded that the government should promote “policies that help enable, rather than smother, a vibrant, healthy, and competitive ecosystem for technologies like V2V—an outcome that is unlikely under a prescriptive mandate like the one currently under consideration.”

And we are not alone in our perspective.

Numerous other commenters from across the ideological and organizational spectrum, have argued the DSRC mandate is complex, incapable of effectively meeting proposed safety benchmarks, may not comport Executive Order 13771, and could handicap the adoption of nearer-term V2V alternatives, such as cellular-based V2V.

In short, while a V2V communications mandate may be appropriate, specifying DSRC as the one-standard-to-rule-them-all is not the appropriate path forward in promoting automotive safety for connected vehicles. Such a rule, if enacted, will stifle investment in alternative safety technologies and curtail ongoing innovation in promoting flexible, adaptive standards for V2V adoption.

The advent of more intelligent, connected, and (soon) autonomous vehicles will undoubtedly play a major role in reducing automobile fatalities. We should all share the goal of safer roadways, but a DSRC mandate will not get us there sooner.