WASHINGTON -- News flash: Silicon Valley moves more quickly than Detroit.
Five years is a blink of an eye in the auto industry, not even a full product cycle. But it is an epoch in the consumer electronics world.
Consider that the first smartphone using Google Inc.'s Android operating system went on sale in October 2008. Late this summer, after nearly five years and a dozen software iterations, the 1 billionth Android device was activated, roughly matching the total number of cars in service on Earth.
No, it's not a fair comparison. Building a hand-held device, or writing code for a Web site, is nothing like building a car. But as the two industries grow intertwined, their disparate r&d styles -- the cautious, step-by-step approach of Detroit and the nimble nature of Silicon Valley -- are creating tension, including here on Capitol Hill.
One example is connected car technology, which allows Wi-Fi-enabled vehicles to talk to one another over the airwaves on a special frequency reserved for transportation uses.
It is not a new idea. Congress set aside the 5.9-gigahertz section of the wireless spectrum for such uses in 1998, to guard against harmful interference from consumers surfing the Internet, for example. But after years of development, connected cars are still in the r&d stage and aren't expected to appear in showrooms for at least a few more years.
And now those fallow frequencies are coveted by technology companies. Silicon Valley companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. are lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to open up that bandwidth for a new generation of faster Wi-Fi.
Automakers say it could cause interference with the crash-avoidance features they're planning, but Cisco's counterargument is simple: It has been 15 years. Where are the connected cars?
For a hearing last month on Capitol Hill, Toyota sent John Kenney, a senior manager at the automaker's research center in Mountain View, Calif., also home to Google's corporate headquarters.
"I recognize that there may be some skepticism" about whether "the benefits are being overstated or that the automakers will never bring the technology to the market," Kenney said. "I can assure you that Toyota believes in and is committed to [this] critical safety technology."
But he also said Toyota is willing to share bandwidth if steps are taken to prevent interference. That alone is a concession and a clear sign of how automakers have been put on the defensive by their slow rollout.
A second wake-up call has come in the field of autonomous cars. Google has been setting the agenda with promises to commercialize the technology within five years, pushing automakers to speed up their r&d.
Nissan says that by 2020, it will be ready to offer an autonomous car, and General Motors says it will offer a self-driving feature that can be toggled on and off, like cruise control. But fully driverless cars will not be a reality "for many years to come," Michael Robinson, a GM vice president who oversees global regulatory issues, testified before the House Transportation Committee in late November.
Companies such as GM are trying to show key policymakers, such as Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., a former auto dealer who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, that Google isn't the only pioneer at work. Not long ago, Shuster was given a ride to the Pittsburgh airport in a driverless Cadillac SRX designed by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.
But it has become clear enough that the revolution of in-car computing is being led from Silicon Valley, not from Detroit.
Automakers aren't entirely to blame. Electronics is not historically their strength. And the government standards they must follow are much stricter -- as they should be. A poorly engineered smartphone drops calls; a badly engineered car can kill people.
They are trying to catch up, as shown by the fact that a record nine automakers will have booths at January's electronics show in Las Vegas, now called International CES.
But as long as automakers are even a step behind, they risk losing the opportunity to shape their brands and their vehicle experience on their own terms. They risk losing any claim to the data collected through connected-car interactions, and all the revenue and insight that could result. Simply put, they get further from defining the cutting edge.
For automakers to regain their credibility in Washington as technology trendsetters, they will have to step on the gas.