WASHINGTON -- After more than a decade of r&d, vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology is reaching a key political juncture that could determine when and how "talking" cars appear on our roads.
Automakers and regulators view the technology as a potential game changer for road safety. Equipping cars and roadside infrastructure with special radios that constantly transmit and receive information including vehicle speed, direction and braking could reduce crashes by unimpaired drivers by 80 percent, U.S. officials say.
"We're at the 1-yard line," said Harry Lightsey, executive director for public policy at General Motors' connected-car unit. "We're at the point where this technology is ready to be deployed."
But whether the auto industry will surge over the goal line or be forced to take a timeout hinges on two pending decisions from the Obama administration.
First, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is awaiting White House approval on a proposed rule to require all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems. Though normally averse to new regulations, automakers say a mandate is needed in this case to set common standards so the connected-car systems of different automakers speak the same language.
Meanwhile, a battle is raging over access to the radio frequencies that would be used by V2V systems, with automakers on one side and cable providers and some technology companies on the other. The Federal Communications Commission, which in 1999 carved out a slice of radio spectrum exclusively for safety-related connected-car use, now is considering ways to share that spectrum with "unlicensed" users, such as Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices.
NHTSA's proposed V2V mandate is viewed by policy experts as the most important step for connected-car deployment. Although the proposal's language hasn't been made public, the mandate is viewed as the easiest path for automakers to coalesce around common technical and security standards.
The proposal could be approved by the White House as early as this month, opening it up for public comment. Or it could take much longer.
With just eight months left of the Obama administration, the risk of a significant delay is real, says Steven Bayless, vice president of technology and markets at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. The White House could require NHTSA to provide more analysis or wait until the FCC's ruling on spectrum sharing, Bayless says. And the new administration may have different regulatory priorities, which could diminish chances of a quick approval.