Industry wants green light for smart cars

Advocates of “smart” cars say federal regulators must listen more closely to developers’ concerns to allow emerging technologies to hit the roadways.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has been encouraging the development of so-called "connected vehicles" that can use technology to communicate with other cars and even infrastructure like traffic lights to improve mobility for drivers. 

But Intelligent Car Coalition Executive Director Catherine McCullough said Tuesday at a Tech in Policy event hosted by The Hill that the technology could be deployed more effectively if regulators listened better to industry.

"[The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] traditionally looks at the car... and they have jurisdiction over safety in the car and they have a lot of very good people there who have worked many years to make sure that we're all safer in our cars, and they have done a good job of that," she said. 

"However, now that you have more technologies coming into the car... I think it's a perfect example of new technologies entering a regulatory space that has maybe an older policy-making apparatus," she continued.  

McCullough said the traffic safety agency typically divides its regulation of electronic devices in cars into three categories: technology that is built-into the vehicle, handheld devices that are brought inside by drivers and voice-activated equipment. 

The DOT has pushed hard in recent years to convince states to outlaw the use of handheld electronics like cell phones while driving. The agency has been more lenient about built-in equipment that has been developed on new models by automakers, but regulators have raised concerns about distracted driving.

McCullough admitted there was a possibility for drivers to become distracted by some smart technologies. However, she said many of the most cutting edge connection equipment in automobiles is operated automatically, citing examples such as cars that stop themselves when they come close to a collision or detect when drivers' eyes have left the road.

McCullough said it has been tough for the Transportation department to keep up with all the new technologies that have emerged.

"It's a pretty classic case of the technology outpacing a regulatory structure and I think it's a pretty good example about why we need to be having a pretty healthy conversation about how tech impacts these industries," she said. "Maybe some more collaboration is needed."

McCullough expressed sympathy for the job facing transportation regulators in a rapidly changing automobile industry.

"It's a difficult and changing position for everybody to be in," she said. "You have the regulator who wants to fulfill their mission, you have the automakers who want consumers to have what they want to have, and consumers who frankly are going to demand what they want to have and they're going to make sure that they get it anyway."

Transportation officials in the Obama administration have said connected vehicles could be a way to make driving in the U.S. more safe if properly regulated.

"Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we've already seen with safety belts and air bags," Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxGeorgia Power says electricity at Atlanta airport will likely be restored by midnight Ex-Obama transportation chief on Atlanta airport power outage: 'Total and abject failure' To address America's crumbling infrastructure, follow Britain's lead MORE said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

"By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go while ensuring that the U.S. remains the leader in the global automotive industry," he continued.

Despite the DOT’s stated support, McCullough said Tuesday that the fractious debate about transportation funding that has been going on in Congress could cause automakers to put the brakes on investments in vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies.

"The infrastructure funding and the way that our infrastructure talks to vehicles could be held back by a delayed highway bill," she said. "I personally don't think it's great when Congress can't come to a conclusion, especially around something like a highway bill and that is traditionally a six-year bill and that is required for the kind of investment that goes into infrastructure and into transportation."

The Senate is scheduled to vote on a much shorter eight-month, $10.9 billion transportation bill this week.

The Hill's full Tech in Policy discussion can be viewed here.