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2016-12-14 12:22:16
Cars Talking to One Another? They Could Under Proposed Safety Rules

WASHINGTON — The federal government has bet on driverless vehicles as a way to reduce road fatalities. Now, it is also betting that drivers and passengers will be safer if cars can talk to one another to prevent accidents.

The Transportation Department proposed rules on Tuesday that all new cars and small trucks contain communications technology to broadcast data to one another about their speed, location and direction they are traveling.

Under the new rules, cars would be able to use wireless technology involving chips and a dedicated band of radio airwaves to detect if another vehicle around the corner and hundreds of yards away was moving too fast in its direction and headed for a collision. What happens next would be up to the automaker, which would decide if it would put in place automated response technology to brake or simply provide a visual or audio warning to a driver.

The proposed rules, combined with the department’s recent guidelines on driverless cars, illustrate the government’s embrace of car-safety technology after years of hesitation, even as distractions in vehicles contributed to the biggest annual percentage increase of road fatalities in 50 years.

The vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, which is separate from driverless car tech, is viewed by regulators as the most effective fix for vehicle deaths. Along with future plans for rules that would mandate that cars communicate with stoplights and signs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it believes that the communications technology can help reduce crashes — not including those involving drivers under the influence — by 80 percent.

“We are carrying the ball as far as we can to realize the potential of transportation technology to save lives,” Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary, said in a call on Tuesday. He added that the vehicle-to-vehicle technology would provide “360-degree situational awareness on the road and will enhance vehicle safety.” The agency is considering similar rules for big trucks.

There are hurdles to Mr. Foxx’s vision. The dedicated airwaves being considered for vehicle communications are being tested by the Federal Communications Commission for potential interference with other Wi-Fi users. There are also potential cybersecurity risks when cars are connected online. Mr. Foxx said the vehicle communications systems would be encrypted.

The proposal, which will be open for three months of public comment, requires cars to be able to broadcast and receive data from one another. The carmaker determines what to do with that data, be it automated braking or visual warnings on a dashboard. A driver can turn off warnings or automated response features but will not be able to turn off the basic communications abilities under consideration, the N.H.T.S.A. said.

The rules would apply only to new vehicles. If the rules are passed, the agency predicted that it would take about two years before half of all new cars had the communications technology and four years for all new cars.

It is unclear how the Trump administration and the incoming transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, will view the technology mandates and guidelines for autonomous vehicles or vehicle-to-vehicle communications. President-elect Donald J. Trump has vowed to unravel regulations that have been onerous for businesses.

Mr. Foxx said he thought automakers would support his proposal.

“Many, many stakeholders in the automotive industry believe this rule is essential,” Mr. Foxx said. “I can’t speak for the next administration, but from a safety perspective, this is a no-brainer.”

The rules were first discussed by the N.H.T.S.A. two years ago and build on a plan to generally make humans a smaller part of the driving experience.

The agency’s long-term vision is for smart cars to be connected to one another and to road infrastructure such as stoplights. Driverless cars, which mainly use GPS, cameras and radar to detect movements through streets, would also be enhanced with technology to communicate with other cars.

The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute immediately called the new mandate a “midnight” political ploy by the Obama administration and said the incoming administration should abandon the plan.

The rules are “all pain, no gain,” said Marc Scribner, a research fellow at the organization, who added that “hypothetical safety benefits will be trivial for the next 15 years, at which point far superior automated vehicle technology may be deployed to consumers.”

AAA, which has supported Mr. Foxx’s agenda on car technology and driverless vehicles, said even if new technologies eventually replaced radio communication among cars, the current proposal is a strong solution for safer roads.

“We need redundancy,” said Jill Ingrassia, AAA’s managing director for government relations. “And we need critical mass for this to be effective.”

Ed Walters, an adjunct professor of robotics law at Georgetown University, said the rules were “100 percent good for safety.”

“You have all these carmakers developing autonomous vehicles,” he said, “but no one car is as smart as all cars together.”