One of the many proposed rules published a few days before President Trump took office was a mandate that all cars built after 2020 come with dedicated shortrange radio communications (DSRC) so that they can talk with one another. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this rule will “prevent hundreds of thousands of crashes.” The rule is downloadable as a 166-page Federal Register document or a slightly more readable 392-page paper.
The mandate would add about $300 to the cost of every car, or several billion dollars a year. The radios would not add much weight to the cars, but once most cars have them the collective weight would increase fuel consumption by more than 30 million gallons a year.
In exchange for these costs, NHTSA estimates that the rule will save 23 to 31 lives by 2025. These numbers are small because the benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications are nil unless both vehicles in a potential communication have them. Since the average car on the road is more than 11 years old, it will take about that many years before most cars have V2V and many more years before nearly all cars have it. Yet even by 2060, NHTSA projects the technology will save only 987 to 1,365 lives.
Every life is valuable, but the question is whether V2V using DSRC is the best way to save lives. More than 35,000 people lost their lives in auto accidents in 2015, and V2V is expected to reduce this by less than 4 percent in forty years.
There are much better ways that can save more lives without a mandate. One is using 5G phones, which are just around the corner. They promise far greater power and flexibility than DSRC. People replace their phones much more frequently than they replace cars, so use of cell phones to provide voluntary V2V communications is likely to lead to much higher participation rates sooner than with a V2V mandate. Meanwhile, DSRC will probably be obsolete by 2020, so mandating that it be installed in cars will stifle new technologies.
If you have a smart phone or GPS device and use it to check on traffic conditions, you are already using a V2V device. The congestion reported on your smart phone or GPS comes from similar devices in other cars that are using the same technologies. Auto manufacturers are already selling cars that communicate with your smart phone, making it possible to use them as V2V devices to control your car. While a federal mandate that all cars use the same technology will make them vulnerable to hackers, not to mention nosy government agencies that want to know or, worse, control where you drive, software from a variety of different developers will greatly reduce those vulnerabilities.
As a result, “technology and telecommunications groups opposed to a federal mandate that cars automatically communicate with each other are hoping the proposal is an early victim of President Donald Trump’s regulatory clampdown,” reports Bloomberg.
One reason it is safer to rely on new technologies rather than government mandates is that the government is so slow. NHTSA published its notice that it was considering this rule way back in August, 2014. The draft rule came out in January 2017, and they don’t expect a final rule before 2019. That’s five years just for one rule. Technological change happens a lot faster than that.
Google 5G vs DSRC and you’ll find arguments on both sides, but since some car companies are already building DSRC into some of their cars, the real question is not whether DSRC is better than 5G, but whether a government mandate for one or the other is the best way to implement them. Beyond this debate, autonomous cars are likely to reduce auto fatalities by far more than 4 percent, so why do we even need V2V?
Your preference really comes down to trust: do you really trust government to make the right decision? Do you also trust the government to find hack-proof systems and not to abuse the systems itself? Finally do you trust that the slow growth of benefits leading to near-universal use resulting from a mandate is better than the faster growth of benefits from voluntary use of V2V apps on your smart phone?
Comments on the proposed mandate are due on April 12. Comments can be submitted on line or by mail to Docket Management Facility, M–30, U.S. Department of Transportation, West Building, Ground Floor, Rm. W12–140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE., Washington, DC 20590.