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Carmakers Cooperate for Safety’s Sake

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Image courtesy of NHTSA

Image courtesy of NHTSA.

As Gabe Nelson writes for Automotive News, carmakers are in the unusual position of working together, in order to facilitate connected vehicle technology, in which sensors and other devices prevent cars from crashing into others on the road. If the manufacturers were not cooperating with each other, it would be difficult for this auto technology to work, Nelson writes.

U.S. regulators are expected to decide whether the systems that allow vehicles to communicate with each other via Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC) are worth the price, Nelson writes. He reports that the following carmakers are members of the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership: General Motors (with its OnStar system), Mercedes-Benz (with its “mbrace” system), Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen. The Partnership is working with the U.S. government on how to best deploy DSRC in vehicles.

Nelson writes that the top lobbyist for automakers says the music industry was in a similar situation when it standardized equipment around a decade ago:

Linking cars of all brands is the only way for the technology to live up to its potential, says Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose 12 members include GM, Mercedes and Ford.

It is a lesson that Bainwol, the industry’s top lobbyist in Washington, says he learned in the early 2000s as head of the music industry’s main lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America. Back then, a proliferation of digital music formats and distribution channels frustrated owners of portable devices such as the iPod, sparking confrontations between hardware and software companies.

Bainwol pointed out that in the case of cars, it is more urgent to have cooperation among competitors, because car accidents can be a matter of life or death. “If there’s a car that’s coming to an intersection and it’s running through a red light, you need to make sure the cars are talking to stop a crash,” he said.

The other members of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Auto Alliance) are: BMW Group, Chrysler Group LLC, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo, according to Auto Alliance. The Alliance is “committed to developing and implementing constructive solutions to public policy challenges that promote sustainable mobility and benefit society in the areas of environment, energy and motor vehicle safety.”

Volvo is also on board with carmakers cooperating, Nelson writes, saying that even Volvo, whose brand is synonymous with auto safety, cannot move forward on its own. By linking its “On Call” service to other brands of cars, Volvo can add more features, Peter Mertens, Volvo’s research and development chief, told Nelson. Mertens, who was in Washington, D.C., recently to speak with experts on connected cars, had planned to meet with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials, but was unable to because of the federal government shutdown, Nelson writes.

Despite the shutdown, there is some hope that NHTSA Administrator David Strickland may be able to make good on his promise that the agency will decide before the end of the year whether to issue a mandate, or some guidelines, or simply to encourage further discussions, Nelson writes. Sources told Nelson that agency staffers have written a 600-page draft document, and that officials seem to favor DSRC and “are determined to make an announcement to push it forward.”

Mertens told Nelson that although there are problems that would need to be ironed out, carmakers could start adding the equipment to cars some time between 2015 and 2017. Among the obstacles, as Nelson outlines:

  • The need to write security protocols allowing cars to communicate with each other without risking computer hackers and privacy breaches; and
  • The need to resolve a disagreement between regulators and carmakers. The Federal Communication Commission has suggested that vehicles using DSCR share the airwaves with all kinds of Wi-FI devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. But the carmakers say those devices, which have fast data connections, could clog the 5.9 GHz frequency band that Auto Alliance says has been designated for exclusive use for Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communications.

In a statement earlier this year, Bainwol said that although carmakers support the need to look into spectrum sharing:

… [W]e must understand that the future of auto safety lies in crash avoidance. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said it believes connected vehicle technology could potentially address approximately 80 percent of crash scenarios involving non-impaired drivers.

But these critical safety systems require that communications go through every time without delay. That’s why automakers have concerns with the 5.9 GHz frequency band becoming congested…

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