The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
Auto industry can take the initiative on 3 big issues
GABE NELSON

Wait for Congress to act? Good luck

Auto industry can take the initiative on 3 big issues

COMMENTARY
Gabe Nelson is a staff reporter for Automotive News
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WASHINGTON -- The need to fix America's crumbling roads is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on.

Yet last month, with the country on the verge of running out of cash for highway repairs, lawmakers couldn't settle on legislation to renew road funding for the next several years. Instead, to free up some quick money, the House tax-writing committee resorted to an accounting trick that involves letting employers postpone their pension-fund contributions.

It was a gimmick -- worthy of a blast from "The Daily Show" -- and a sign of how little we can expect from the federal government these days when it comes to the big, important issues facing the auto industry.

Ever since the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, the federal government has set out rules of the road and doled out money when necessary. But if the United States cannot even maintain roads that it built -- a public good that benefits the rich and the poor, liberals and conservatives -- then it can't do much of anything. We're not living in Eisenhower's America anymore.

"The Daily Show" took a shot at a House committee's accounting trick.

The void in Washington must be frustrating for automakers. But it also creates a prime opportunity for them to take the initiative on the industry's big issues and challenges. At stake is the car of the future that we're always hearing about, the one that's safer, cleaner and more connected.

Here are three areas in which the industry needs to step up:

1. Clean-car infrastructure. Yes, the Obama administration and states such as California have poured millions of dollars into electric-vehicle infrastructure, such as chargers and hydrogen pumps. And, yes, automakers from Tesla to Toyota are investing as well.

But the infrastructure still isn't ready for the move to zero-emission vehicles that most industry planners expect over the next several decades.

What if hydrogen producers, electric utilities, automakers and suppliers pooled money to build a nationwide network of shared chargers and pumps to aid the whole industry, without relying on fickle governments to parcel out taxpayer dollars?

2. The Internet of Cars. It has been 15 years since Congress allotted a chunk of the wireless spectrum for vehicle-to-vehicle communications that could prevent crashes. Automakers see the promise, but the technology hasn't arrived in showrooms. Until everyone in the industry uses it, it's not that useful.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has vowed to propose a mandate before President Obama leaves office, in early 2017. That means the final decision will be up to the next administration. In the best-case scenario, deployment is six to eight years away. Meanwhile, those fallow frequencies will be coveted by telecommunications companies, which stand ready to use them.

The industry should step forward to fund, develop and run the security system that will form the backbone of this Internet of Cars. It is the kind of work that the government would have done in Eisenhower's America. But in today's Washington, government control would leave the whole enterprise vulnerable to funding hiccups and political uncertainty.

3. Privacy and data security. Automakers are rapidly building into their cars 3G and 4G wireless connections, which allow them to collect reams of data on cars and drivers. But the industry has been opaque when anyone asks how much information car companies are collecting and how they keep it private and secure.

Can a car company track where you go? Or whom you call? Or how fast you drive? Of course, automakers would say no. If they ever suggest otherwise, they will quickly recant, as Ford's Jim Farley learned in January after a supposed slip of the tongue.

Right now, the public doesn't know the answer. It would take only one privacy breach or one rogue hacker to make a mess for the whole industry. Rather than waiting for a dysfunctional Congress to wrap its arms around this problem, the industry should get ahead of it, be honest and show that it is putting best practices in place.

It won't be free to construct hydrogen pumps or build the Internet of Cars. It won't be painless to lift the secrecy that shrouds the cloud-connected car. It won't be easy to admit that privacy and security are still a work in progress. But important steps are rarely free or easy.

When talking about the safe, clean, connected car of the future, automakers have too often assumed that money and guidance from Washington will make it happen. It's time for the industry to drop its passive, incremental ways and move forward boldly with a vision for 21st-century infrastructure.

Anything less is a gimmick.

This is Gabe Nelson's final Beltway column. He is moving to California as Automotive News' Silicon Valley reporter,

covering automotive technology.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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