What NHTSA is proposing could begin a transformation in the American transportation system that makes our lives better and freer — or gives government more power over where we go and when.
In announcing its proposed rulemaking, NHTSA is stressing its intention to protect the "privacy" of American drivers.
"This document initiates rulemaking that would propose to create a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, FMVSS No. 150, to require vehicle-to-vehicle communication capability for light vehicles," says NHTSA's dryly-worded notice.
What do vehicle-to-vehicle communications entail?
NHTSA has crafted a nice phrase to describe the information cars would broadcast. It is the "Basic Safety Message."
"An integrated V2V system is connected to proprietary data busses and can provide highly accurate information using in-vehicle information to generate the Basic Safety Message," says NHTSA's technical report on "Readiness of V2V for Application."
"The integrated system both broadcasts and receives BSMs," says the report. "In addition, it can process the content of received messages to provide advisories and/or warnings to the driver of the vehicle in which it is installed."
The "Basic Safety Message" will be broadcast by the vehicle's dedicated short-range communications system. According to NHTSA, this system will need to transmit certain specific information.
"For example," says the technical report, "when a DSRC unit sends out a BSM, the BSM needs to: Contain the relevant elements and describe them accurately (e.g., vehicle speed; GPS position; vehicle heading; DSRC message ID, etc.)."
What NHTSA envisions mandating will not control people's cars but create a uniform communication system built into all vehicles that will give automobile manufacturers the opportunity to equip their products with warning systems that alert drivers to potential accidents — such as one that might be caused by cross traffic at a blind intersection.
"NHTSA currently does not plan to propose to require specific V2V-based safety applications," says the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. "Rather, we plan to propose to require that new vehicles be equipped with DSRC devices, which will enable a variety of applications that may provide various safety-critical warnings to drivers."
But NHTSA does not envision that the use of this type of technology will stop there.
The agency has published a "Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles." This statement describes V2V as part of a "continuum" leading to fully automated vehicles.
"Accordingly, three distinct but related streams of technological change and development are occurring simultaneously: (1) in-vehicle crash avoidance systems that provide warnings and/or limited automated control of safety functions; (2) V2V communications that support various crash avoidance applications; and (3) self-driving vehicles," said NHTSA's statement of policy.
"NHTSA finds that it is helpful to think of these emerging technologies as part of a continuum of vehicle control automation," said the policy statement. "The continuum, discussed below, runs from vehicles with no active control systems all the way to full automation and self-driving.
"While the agency is conducting research along the entire automation continuum, our emphasis initially is on determining whether those crash avoidance and mitigation technologies that are currently available (or soon to be available) are not only safe, but effective," said the statement. "However, because these same technologies are the building blocks for what may one day lead to a driverless vehicle, we have also begun research focused on safety principles that may apply to even higher levels of automation, such as driver behavior in the context of highly automated vehicle safety systems."
In its technical report on V2V, published last week, NHTSA said: "At the outset, readers should understand some very important points about the V2V system as currently contemplated by NHTSA. The system will not collect or store any data identifying individuals or individual vehicles, nor will it enable the government to do so."
"There is no data in the safety messages exchanged by vehicles or collected by the V2V system that could be used by law enforcement or private entities to personally identify a speeding or erratic driver," the report said. "The system — operated by private entities — will not enable tracking through space and time of vehicles linked to specific owners or drivers."
"Our research to date suggests that drivers may be concerned about the possibility that the government or a private entity could use V2V communications to track their daily activities and whereabouts," said the report. "However, as designed, NHTSA is confident that the V2V system both achieves the agency's safety goals and protects consumer privacy appropriately."
Like any other instrument, the new automobile technology the federal government is now planning to mandate can be used for good or ill. Certainly, automated automobile warning systems based on accurate data broadcast by other people's cars and roadway infrastructure can save lives.
But as vehicles become fully automated, as they surely will, and the people in them no longer have absolute control over the vehicle's movements, a key question will be: Who does?