WASHINGTON -- Top federal transportation officials say they see enough promise in vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology to start inching toward mandating it in all new cars sold in the United States. But it could be a decade before connected cars become the norm on American roads.
The technology, also called V2V, relies on wireless transmitters that broadcast the location, direction and speed of a car 10 times per second. The equipment also collects signals from other cars. If a collision is imminent, the car can alert the driver or apply the brakes.
"Keeping drivers safe is the most important advantage of V2V, but it's also just one of many," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last week, adding that the technology could help drivers avoid traffic jams and drive more efficiently. "The potential of this technology is absolutely enormous."
But the gears of government turn slowly. With automakers unwilling to gamble on the technology until the government sets a standard, experts say an entire generation of vehicles will go on sale by the time the technology takes hold.
Foxx said he wants to propose regulations by the time President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017. These rules likely would mandate that all new light vehicles have vehicle-to-vehicle communications by a certain model year.
But the rule making process typically takes another year or two, and companies would get another few years to comply. Industry sources say it could be five or 10 years before connected cars are sold in significant numbers.
For the technology to deliver the intended benefits, cars of all brands would need to communicate. Until they can be sure that this can happen, automakers will see little benefit from deploying the technology, says Richard Bishop, who led DOT's automation program in the 1990s.
"It's not impossible that a company would want to go on their own," says Bishop, now a consultant on connected and automated cars. "Somebody with a large market share could do it. I just don't see any indication that anybody wants to do that."
Automakers were lukewarm about the DOT endorsement of V2V. Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the automakers like the technology, but there are questions to resolve about privacy and security.
The technology "may well play a larger role in future road safety, but many pieces of a large puzzle still need to fit together," she said in a statement.
The transmitters are similar to the Wi-Fi devices in computers but use a different wireless frequency called Dedicated Short-Range Communication. Such a system would cost a manufacturer an estimated $150 per car in 2017 and $75 by 2022, the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research estimated in 2012.
Automakers usually bristle at being ordered to add such expensive equipment to their cars. And it's possible DOT will soften its stance.
Foxx said he would like to work with the industry on a mutually agreeable standard, which he likened to the one the White House brokered on fuel economy.
"Our experience has been that when we work well with industry to set a standard, the market starts to shape toward that standard," Foxx said. "And that's what we're hoping happens here."