U.S. regulators will propose rules before President Barack Obama leaves office requiring vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems in new cars, a move advocates said may aid safety more than seat belts and air bags.
“Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a news conference today. “The potential of this technology is enormous.”
Technology companies including Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) are among those vying to build the architecture for the connected car of the future. Google Inc. and Tesla Motors Inc. are among companies looking at employing automated systems that could be precursors to self-driving cars.
The technology would let cars automatically exchange safety data such as speed and position 10 times per second and send warnings to drivers if an imminent collision is sensed, the Transportation Department said in a statement today. The systems being envisioned won’t be able to operate brakes or steering, though such technologies are being studied.
The technology’s price is dropping and its effectiveness is improving, said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. It will take years to work out the how the devices work outside the lab and the degree to which they will control vehicles, he said in an e-mailed statement.
“The full transition from our current vehicle fleet to a connected fleet will take at least 10 years, and like any new technology, the early stages of the transition will be fraught with glitches,” Brauer said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. auto-safety regulator, released in May its draft of a policy that encouraged development of technologies that could be components of autonomous vehicles.
It conducted a pilot project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to test short-range communication technologies that it has said could prevent, or reduce in severity, as many as 80 percent of crashes involving non-impaired drivers. About a third of U.S. highway fatalities are alcohol-related.
“The vision of talking cars that avoid crashes is well on the way to becoming reality,” Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, said in a statement. The Washington-based trade group includes companies such as Honda Motor Co. (7267), Siemens AG, AT&T Inc. and TomTom NV.
David Strickland, who stepped down as NHTSA administrator last month, said in May that the agency was looking at whether to regulate crash-imminent braking, a technology featured in a number of luxury models that applies brakes automatically if sensors indicate a crash is about to occur.
Vehicle-to-vehicle systems would go a step beyond such systems by allowing communications to take place between cars, or between a car and the road.
Today’s announcement begins a three-year period of intensive, more-focused research and consultations with the industry that will lead to a proposed regulation, NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman said.
The “game-changing” technology has now been demonstrated as reliability and capable of saving lives, Friedman said. Automakers, their suppliers and tech companies had been waiting for a signal that regulators were ready to write long-term plans, and they’ll react favorably to today’s Transportation Department decision, Foxx said.
Among the issues to be settled: how much access non-automotive users would have to the frequencies to be designated for use in vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Both the Transportation Department and the Federal Communications Commission will have to carefully evaluate any potential interference with the safety-critical systems.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing automakers including General Motors Co. (GM) and Toyota Motor Corp., cautioned that the FCC should reserve the airwaves for “safety-critical auto systems until thorough testing is completed.”
Automakers have to work with companies that are trying to fit unlicensed Wi-Fi devices on the same frequency, said Michael Stanton, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Global Automakers.
“Communication delays of even thousandths of a single second matter when dealing with auto and highway safety,” Stanton said.
The Telecommunications Industry Association welcomed the end of an almost “15-year development cycle” and noted that technology companies were looking to share the designated frequency “to meet exploding Wi-Fi demand.”
“We look forward to working with the FCC and other federal agencies to determine how other low-power unlicensed technologies such as Wi-Fi can share this radio spectrum,” the Arlington, Virginia-based group, whose members include Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and Alcatel-Lucent (ALU), said in a statement.
The Transportation Department today said the technology it envisions won’t track vehicle movements or allow the exchange of personal information. It would allow cars to be identified only for the purposes of fixing safety flaws.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, raised concerns in May that the communications advances being discussed could make cars vulnerable to hacking.
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