NHTSA May Mandate That New Cars Broadcast Location, Direction and Speed

November 19, 2013 - 4:10 PM
New Ford Focus cars

(AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Before the end of this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will decide whether or not to begin the rulemaking process to mandate that newly manufactured cars include what is being called “vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V) communications technology that constantly broadcasts via radio wave the car’s location, direction, speed and, possibly, even the number of passengers it is carrying.

“NHTSA expects to make a decision on V2V technology by the end of the year,” a spokesman for the agency told CNSNews.com.

That point was reaffirmed by NHTSA Administrator David Strickland in testimony in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee today, where he said the agency will “decide this year whether to further advance the technology through regulatory action, additional research, or a combination of both.”

“We expect to issue decisions on light duty vehicles this year, followed by a decision on heavy-duty vehicles in 2014,” he said.

NHTSA sees this technology as the first step on a “continuum” of automotive evolution that will ultimately lead to fully automated vehicles navigated by internal electronics linked to external infrastructure, communications and database systems.

The upside of a government-mandated movement toward cars that are not controlled by the people riding in them is that it could make transportation safer, allow people to use time spent in a vehicle for work, rest or entertainment, and give people who are currently incapable of driving because of age or disability the opportunity to move as freely as those who can now drive.

The downside is that such a transportation system would give the government at least the capability to exert increasing control over when, where, if--or for how much additional taxation--people are allowed to go places in individually owned vehicles. It could also give government the ability to track where people go and when.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland (AP Photo)

The Obama administration says this is something it has “no plans” to do even if it does mandate V2V technology in all new cars.

“NHTSA has no plans to modify the current V2V system design in a way that would enable the government or private entities to track individual motor vehicles,” a NHTSA spokesman told CNSNews.com.

In October 2011, the Department of Transportation (DOT) published a plan for researching the safety applications of this technology. It summarized how the technology would work and the information it could transmit from vehicles.

“V2V communication for safety refers to the exchange of data over a wireless network that provides critical information that allows each vehicle to perform calculations and issue driver advisories, driver warnings, or take pre-emptive actions to avoid and mitigate crashes,” said the DOT plan. “Data that may be exchanged includes each vehicle’s latitude, longitude, time, heading angle, speed, lateral acceleration, longitudinal acceleration, yaw rate, throttle position, brake status, steering angle, headlight status, turn signal status, vehicle length, vehicle width, vehicle mass, bumper height, and the number of occupants in the vehicle.”

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report noting that NHTSA could act this year to mandate V2V in new cars and describing the “challenges” deploying these technologies would present.

“The continued progress of V2V technology development hinges on a decision that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to make in late 2013 on how to proceed with these technologies,” said the GAO report. “One option would be to pursue a rulemaking requiring their inclusion in new vehicles.”

Barack Obama, Ray LaHood

President Barack Obama with then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The report summarized six components that would be deployed in vehicles equipped with V2V. These included: 1) a Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) radio that “receives and transmits data through antennae,” 2) a GPS receiver that “provides vehicle position and time to DSRC radio” and “provides timekeeping signal for applications,” 3) an “internal communications network” that incorporates the “existing network that interconnects components” in the vehicle, 4) an electronic control unit that “runs safety applications,” 5) a driver-vehicle interface that “generates warning[s] issued to driver,” and 6) a memory that “stores security certificates, application data and other information.”

The proper functioning of these components in helping a driver safely operate a vehicle, according to the GAO, would depend on a “communication security system” that “provides and verifies V2V security certificates to ensure trust between vehicles.”

In August 2012, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood initiated the “Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment,” the main phase of which was completed in August of this year. In this pilot program, conducted in Ann Arbor, Mich., DOT partnered with divisions of eight automobile companies—Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen—to road test V2V systems.

A total of 2,700 vehicles participated in the test, according to GAO. Each of the eight automobile manufacturers provided eight automobiles a piece with fully integrated V2V systems of the type that would be installed in new cars. Additionally, according to the GAO, 79 commercial vehicles in Ann Arbor and 88 mass transit vehicles were equipped with V2V.

The rest of the cars were retrofitted with the sort of V2V equipment that would go into cars that were already on the road before the technology became available.

“What was once previously thought of as science fiction and decades away from reality may now appear to be just around the corner,” NHTSA Administrator Strickland told the Senate Commerce Committee in written testimony in May.

Two weeks later, Strickland’s agency released “A Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles.” It said NHTSA believed the U.S. was heading down a “continuum” of vehicle development that would end with fully automated vehicles. V2V was a step on this continuum.

Barack Obama, John Holdren

President Barack Obama and White House Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren. (White House photo/Pete Souza)

“NHTSA finds that it is helpful to think of these emerging technologies as part of a continuum of vehicle control automation,” said NHTSA. “The continuum … runs from vehicles with no active control systems all the way to full automation and self-driving.

John Lee, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin, testified in the same Senate Commerce Committee hearing as the NHTSA administrator.

“We think of cars as mechanical systems, but they are actually rolling computers,” said Lee in his written testimony. “These computers are changing what it means to drive.”

“Moore's law suggests the capacity of automation and entertainment systems will change rapidly, doubling every 18 months,” Lee said. “This exponential increase means that in fifteen years we are likely to be discussing whether people should be allowed to drive--because autonomous vehicles may be much less error prone than people.”

In preparing its report on V2V, the GAO surveyed a group of 21 experts on this technology and related issues. It also interviewed representatives of public interest groups.

The GAO asked the experts to rate various potential challenges to deploying V2V on a scale that ran from no challenge, to slight challenge, to moderate challenge, to great challenge, to very great challenge.

“Of the 21 experts we interviewed, 12 cited the technical development of a V2V communication security system as a great or very great challenge to the deployment of V2V technologies,” said the GAO report. “One expert told us that it is challenging to establish technical specifications for a system that attempts to maintain users’ privacy while providing security for over-the-air transmission of data.

“Another expert noted that a public key infrastructure system the size of the one needed to support the nationwide deployment of V2V technologies has never been developed before,” said the GAO, “the sheer magnitude of the system will pose challenges to its development.”

Six experts said that establishing “acceptable end use privacy” would be a “very great” challenge.

“Public interest groups we interviewed said that overcoming concerns about privacy under a system that involves the sharing of data among vehicles will pose a challenge,” said the GAO. “One group suggested that the possibility that V2V data could be obtained by third parties such as law enforcement agencies could harm the deployment of these technologies. Similarly, one expert suggested that public acceptance of V2       V technologies might be limited without rules prohibiting the use of vehicles’ speed and location data to issue tickets or track drivers’ movements.

“Three experts we interviewed suggested that legislation may be needed to limit the potential use of V2V data,” said the GAO.

“Further,” said the GAO, “one automobile manufacturer … said that it could be difficult to explain how V2V technologies work to the public without raising concerns related to privacy.”

Like any inanimate tool, V2V and automated vehicle technology can be used for good or ill, depending on the aims and intentions of those who use it.

The Obama administration has included at least two senior officials who have expressed a desire to use government power to curb the use of vehicles.

John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, co-authored a 1973 book—Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions—with population-control advocates Paul and Anne Ehrlich.

In this book, Holdren and his co-authors said a “massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States.” Part of their vision involved automobiles.

“We believe,” wrote Holdren and the Ehrlichs, “a Federal task force should be established immediately to do the planning and lay the groundwork for dealing with the automobile problem without great disruption of the national economy. Such a task force might be part of a larger institution with the responsibility to devise policies for making the transition to a stable, ecologically sound economy. The task is enormous but it is both possible and necessary.”

“In the short term,” wrote Holdren and his co-authors, “alternative activities must be found for various industries, including those related to the automobile.”

Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote that action would be needed in the “political arena.”

“And when solutions to the problems of human ecology are considered, all roads seem to lead to the political arena,” they wrote.

“If you … decided to buy a small car that would last 30 years, be easily repairable and recyclable, and have a low-compression engine, you would find it impossible to do,” they wrote. “A manufacturer who wanted to produce such a car today probably could not; no one would put up the huge amount of capital required for fear that the ‘Eco-special’ would not sell. Only when society makes other kinds of cars illegal (or too expensive) will the money become available for such ventures.”

Thirty five years after Holdren and the Ehrlichs published this book, President Obama named Holdren his science and technology adviser. He also named Ray LaHood, who had been a Republican congressman from Illinois, his transportation secretary.

A month after Obama’s inauguration, LaHood told the Associated Press: "We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled.”

At that time, however, White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters the administration would not pursue the policy of taxing people by the mile.

LaHood, nonetheless, soon announced the DOT’s “livability initiative,” which was designed to get people to live in denser housing near public transit lines.

At a May 21, 2009 appearance at the National Press Club, LaHood was asked: “Is this an effort to make driving more torturous and to coerce people out of their cars?

“It is a way to coerce people out of their cars,” said LaHood, adding a moment later that “we have to create opportunities for people that do want to use a bicycle or want to walk or want to get on a streetcar or want to ride a light rail.”

LaHood was asked a follow-up: “Some conservative groups are wary of the livable communities program, saying it's an example of government intrusion into people's lives. How do you respond?”

“About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives,” said LaHood. “So have at it.”

The GAO report on V2V said that the Department of Transportation saw a need for the system to “identify bad actors” but wanted to “minimize risks to privacy.”

“DOT officials have emphasized the need to distinguish between the ability to identify bad actors through a V2V communication security system and the ability to monitor the movements of individual vehicles,” said the GAO report. “DOT stated that as currently conceived, a V2V communication security system would contain multiple technical, physical, and organizational controls to minimize privacy risks—including the risk of vehicle tracking by individuals and government or commercial entities.”

In a speech in New York in April, NHTSA Administrator Strickland said his agency believed V2V technologies and the eventual automation of automobiles could help manage traffic and preserve the environment.

“In addition to the potential safety impact of V2V and automation, the agency is also aware that these technologies have significant added potential to contribute to intelligent management of roadway traffic and reduce the burden of highway traffic on the environment,” he said. “These potential benefits are additional reasons why the continued exploration of these technologies is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.”

CNSNews.com contacted David Wise, director of the physical infrastructure team at GAO that conducted the study of V2V, and asked him two questions raised by this technology.

Question: “Is it true that V2V technology and the communication system that goes with it, would at least give the government the potential to track the movement of vehicles if that is what it wanted to do?”

Wise: “It would depend on the specific design of the security communications system which, as we say in the report, is not finalized. As we state in our report, according to automobile industry representatives, the security system now under development is being designed to ensure data privacy structure that prevents the association of a vehicle’s V2V communication security certificates with any unique identifier of drivers of their vehicles. In addition, according to DOT, as currently conceived, a V2V communication security system would contain multiple technical, physical, and organizational controls to minimize privacy risks—including the risk of vehicle tracking by individuals and government or commercial entities. DOT officials also told us that the department will continue to assess any risks to privacy posed by the introduction of V2V technologies and identify mitigation measures to minimize those risks as more aspects of a system of V2V communications are defined.”

Question: “DOT’s indication that it wants to distinguish between the ability to identify ‘bad actors’ and ‘the ability to monitor movements of individual vehicles’ indicates there is already an interest by the government in using this emerging technology to track ‘bad actors’”?

Wise: “Yes. However the term ‘bad actors’ refers to vehicles and their devices that are misbehaving or potentially misbehaving. According to CAMP VSC 3 officials [the eight auto companies that joined in the Ann Arbor pilot test], in-vehicle V2V equipment must be able to detect and automatically report potentially misbehaving devices—such as devices that are malfunctioning, used maliciously, or hacked—to a communication security system. The communication security system must also detect and automatically revoke certificates from vehicles with such devices. This is so that vehicles can be sure that the data they receive from other vehicles is valid and can be trusted.”

Wise also said: “I think it is fair to add that DOT and industry are taking steps to try to minimize privacy risks. Also, while we do not explicitly say this in our report, we did not see or hear any indication that DOT has any plan or desire to use V2V to track peoples’ movements.”

CNSNews.com also contacted NHTSA to ask why DOT wanted the "ability to identify bad actors" in a V2V system, and whether DOT was permanently ruling out developing any system that would track individual vehicles on any basis or developing any system that would allow any agency of government to remotely control or deactivate an individual's or individuals' vehicles?”

“At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), safety is our top priority, and we are always looking for ways that innovative technology can be harnessed to improve driver safety,” said a NHTSA spokesman. “As we look ahead to the next stage of roadway safety in America, connected vehicle technology has the potential to significantly reduce injuries and fatalities from crashes.

“NHTSA would seek to develop a V2V system that increases consumer safety, while protecting privacy,” said the spokesman. “Identifying ‘bad actors,’ which could include anything from malfunctioning vehicles to intentional malfeasance (such as hacking), is crucial to ensuring that the V2V security system functions properly.

“The design under consideration for a security system does not collect any personally identifying information, nor does it enable real-time tracking of individual vehicles,” said the spokesman. “NHTSA has no plans to modify the current V2V system design in a way that would enable the government or private entities to track individual motor vehicles. The V2V requirements that NHTSA is currently exploring only involve warnings to drivers to help them avoid crashes.

“The information collected from the year-long model deployment and additional research will be used by NHTSA to determine the best course of action for proceeding with additional V2V communication activities, including possible future rulemakings, additional research, or a combination of both,” said the spokesman. “NHTSA expects to make a decision on V2V technology by the end of the year.”