Leave Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication to Innovators, Not Regulators

November 15, 2017

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that the Department of Transportation (DOT) was backing off of its plans to mandate vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) technology in new vehicles. While DOT quickly issued a statement indicating that the Department hasn’t finalized any decisions on its V2V proposal, nixing the regulation may in fact be the right call for the progress of technology and safety-driving innovation.

In the final days of the Obama administration, DOT published a proposed rule that would require new light vehicles to use V2V to transmit speed, heading, and brake status information to one another. DOT expected that V2V would be able to address—and possibly prevent—crashes that can’t be prevented by current technologies, such as camera and sensor-based devices. When fully deployed in 2051, DOT estimated that V2V technology could reduce up to 600,000 crashes and save up to 1,321 lives annually, providing $71 billion in benefits at a cost of $5 billion per year. 

With such a sunny forecast, why might DOT want to halt its rulemaking? Two reasons: the government has not historically chosen wisely when mandating technical standards, and doing so now could forestall crucial innovations in vehicle communication and safety. How could this be the case? Lee E. Ohanian and Ted Temzelides use developments in transportation to illustrate this fact in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, concluding that “governments are in no position to predict technological breakthroughs, and their attempts to do so can delay innovations by entrenching inferior technologies.”

The federal government has a bad track record when it comes to mandating technology standards. In their comment to DOT, Regulatory Studies Center Co-Director Gerald Brock and Lindsay Abate (Scherber) provide two examples from data communications and television to illustrate how the government has blundered by mandating particular technologies.

For data communications, Brock & Abate use the development of the Internet to illustrate the pitfalls of the “anticipatory standardization” that occurs when government attempts to direct new technology. In the case of the Internet, the federal government established a non-proprietary standard protocol for data communications in the early 1980s, and made this protocol a requirement for federal agencies. The government’s protocol, GOSIP, had competition from a separate protocol, TCP/IP, which was developed in the 1970s by academics with U.S. military support.  Despite the federal government’s mandate, GOSIP stagnated while TCP/IP networks grew rapidly and Internet protocol products proliferated.

The government made the same mistake when facilitating the transition from black and white broadcasting to color television in the 1950s. In 1950, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a mechanical color system as the official color standard for television. While mechanical color systems tested better before FCC, they prevented color broadcasts on black and white television sets while the competing electronic color system would not. After a few years of backward incompatibility, FCC realized its mistake and rescinded its official mechanical color system standard.

Drawing on these examples, Brock and Abate conclude that “no matter how well intentioned a government mandate may be, it is impossible to predict the future course of technology with enough confidence to prescribe a specific detailed standard that will remain in effect for many years.” What was true for government data communications and television is also true for V2V communication: it is impossible for DOT to know how technology will progress absent a standard, and locking in a single technological specification now could forestall the adoption of as-yet-unknown innovations in vehicle safety. 

See also: Public Interest Comment on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards: Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) Communications, by Gerald W. Brock and Lindsay M. Abate (Scherber)