Driving a car for the first time is an American rite of passage. Crashing should not be and soon it will not have to be. Earlier this month the US Department of Transportation announced that it would allow vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology to be implemented in light vehicles. It hopes to mandate the technology in all new future vehicles.
The technology allows vehicles to communicate with other vehicles and provides drivers specific information about their surroundings including the driving speed and location of nearby vehicles. The technology should be particularly useful for those driving in poor weather conditions where vision is impaired. It should also improve safety when changing lanes, making turns, or performing other difficult maneuvers.
While the technology enables further innovations in automation, V2V communication does not replace the driver and these vehicles should not be viewed as fully automated. The technology will increase the amount of information available to drivers to enable them to make better choices, but drivers will retain ultimate control over their vehicles. V2V technology should be considered a form of driver assistance with the potential of allowing the development of greater automation.
Unfortunately, federal government involvement is limiting the technology’s potential. First, the government has decided it will allow V2V communication as long as it dictates the specific parameters. Second, the government hints that its real goal is mandating V2V technology in all cars.
The government should not be dictating the specific parameters. Instead it should be coordinating a private sector working group that determines that technology. Private companies are more effective than the government at innovating. Take for example Google and its driverless vehicles. The Federal government has been researching automated vehicles for 40 years. Yet it only took Google three years to build a semi-automated vehicle. (Google used some of the federal government research.) Then Google had to lobby several state governments to allow it its cars to be driven on public highways. If the company had waited for governments to consider the technology’s potential the idea would still be gathering dust.
Some proponents of government interference in the development of V2V communication technology argue that it is necessary to ensure that corporations do not develop propriety systems that are incompatible with one another. This argument fails to take into account the ability of private companies to enter into consortiums to develop an industry-wide standard. Consider the popular digital media medium digital viewing discs (DVDs). DVD technology was developed by the DVD Forum, an industry group composed of the largest electronic companies. It is not clear why major automobile manufacturers could not form their own consortium to ensure that V2V communication technology is interoperable between vehicles. Since the V2V technology’s value relies on the ability to communicate with other vehicles, it is in the interest of automobile manufacturers to ensure that their products share an industry-wide standard.
Let us consider the different incentives for private companies and government officials to introduce new technologies. Private companies want to make a profit and try to release their product as soon as it is effective and safe. They are not concerned with the short term; they take into account long term profits in their calculations. They have no incentive to put out a faulty technology.
Government officials do not operate with the same urgency. Even when the new technology is safe officials may still delay its release; delays will not bankrupt a federal agency but they could bankrupt a private company. If a given technology is unsafe the government can use it as an example of the need for further regulation, additional funds, and greater centralized power. Since DOT’s budget can increase when problems are found, DOT has the incentive to attack private companies even when they have a stellar safety record. ReasonTV recently covered a prime example of unwarranted government action against a safe Chinatown bus operator.
The hardest hit under a mandate would be the nation’s poorest. The selling point of V2V technology is not safety alone. Road fatalities could be reduced to near zero if everyone drove armored vehicles. Does this mean we should all drive around in tanks? Of course not. The heavy weight of tanks would quickly deteriorate the roads and road repair costs would be astronomical. Tanks are hardly known for their great fuel economy — drivers would pay both in increased fuel costs, local air pollution, and lack of vehicle choice. Those are high costs for increased safety. The selling point of V2V technology is providing an affordable increase in safety. Mandated V2V standards would raise the cost for vehicles beyond what low-income households can afford by reducing manufacturers’ incentives to innovate and reduce V2V’s costs.
We should rejoice that V2V technology is finally being introduced to vehicles, but it is unfortunate that such technology needs to be controlled by government officials.