SAN FRANCISCO -- In the 1960s, when researchers at the Pentagon wanted to create the computer network that laid the groundwork for today's Internet, they secured money from Congress and began building it on their own, shifting it to the private sector over the course of decades.
Those days are gone. While federal officials and researchers today envision a so-called Internet of cars that would make driving safer by linking vehicles through a wireless network, they have all but ruled out funding, building or running it themselves.
"Due to the current fiscal environment," the U.S. Department of Transportation wrote in an Aug. 18 report, "it does not seem plausible."
That leaves a big cloud of uncertainty over the future of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications technology, which a consortium including Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and Volks-wagen has been working to refine over the past decade.
DOT officials have endorsed V2V as a huge leap forward in auto safety, but they are looking for someone else to manage the network, which they expect will cost about $60 million annually to maintain. And right now, it's unclear even to high-ranking DOT officials and industry leaders who that someone will be.
While its Aug. 18 report identified several types of entities -- including automakers, telecommunications companies, security companies and industry groups -- that might be interested in running the network, DOT noted that "private entities have not committed to doing so." The agency is expected to put out a formal request for proposals in the coming months.
For automakers, cooperating on building and managing a wireless network might seem like a prime opportunity to make driving safer and more efficient. With the network up and running as envisioned, cars and trucks on U.S. roads would be equipped with more than $300 in wireless communication equipment allowing them to broadcast a status report to other vehicles 10 times per second.
"I am here," this status report would say, as described in the DOT report. "This is how fast I'm going, and so on. You can trust me." Researchers spent years developing a security protocol to make sure status reports cannot be faked or used by hackers to access a vehicle's onboard computers.
DOT projects that two features enabled by this technology -- one to make left turns safer and another to warn drivers that a vehicle is about to run a red light -- could prevent half a million crashes annually and save more than 1,000 lives.
But automakers may need more incentive to justify investing in a massive technology project. Cost is but one issue; running the network could also expose them to legal liability if something goes wrong and a car crashes, said Mark Johnson, a Washington lawyer at Squire Sanders who has worked on the issue since the 1990s.
"Other than the safety benefits from this technology, it's not clear at this point what benefits the car companies would see from taking on this role," Johnson said. "They believe in this technology. We've had a sea change over the last two years. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to be the administrator of a nationwide system, or are the most capable candidate to do it."
The government finds itself in essentially the same position. David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said V2V communications could be the biggest revolution on U.S. roads since the interstate highway system was created in the 1950s. Beyond preventing accidents, he said, it could ease traffic jams and save fuel by keeping drivers from idling in traffic.
Funding is a hurdle, but so are deep doubts about a federal agency's ability to manage such a project. Running the network would be fiendishly complicated, requiring the government to constantly remain one step ahead of hackers and potential privacy breaches, said Thilo Koslowski, a connected-car analyst at Gartner Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.
Recent struggles with the federal Health Care.gov website have also made government agencies wary of committing to a high-stakes Internet project.
"I don't think the government wants to take on the burden of ensuring the high reliability of this network," Koslowski said.
Though the main goal of the network is to prevent crashes, linking cars could also have commercial uses. The data it generates from millions of cars whizzing down the road might turn out to be incredibly valuable to a technology company such as Google, with its mapping business and its interest in self-driving vehicles.
If the auto industry doesn't run the network, a company in Google's position could be willing to spend $60 million per year to run it, Koslowski said. "For Google," he said, "that's lunch money."