Government, at one level or another, oversees every transportation issue you can think of: air-traffic control, maritime traffic, road signage, even pothole filling. Why can't it also run vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, a feature the feds recently mandated for future cars?
Because the U.S. Department of Transportation is strapped. Short. Hard up. Penurious. Distressed. Embarrassed. Stony-broke. On the rocks. Most glaringly, the department's Highway Trust Fund is teetering on insolvency.
A couple of hundred pages into its report last week that sang the praises of a car-connected world (like preventing 500,000 crashes a year and a lot of traffic jams), the department noted that "arguably" the federal government should run that world directly or through contractors. However, it continues, "DoT research to date has not fully explored a public governance model...Due to the current fiscal environment it does not seem plausible."
Just saying cars must talk to one another by a given date won't get it done. Somebody has to set standards, oversee implementation, and maintain the system. The department estimates that annual maintenance cost at $60 million, which it says could be covered by adding a fee of $3 onto the sales price of each new car.
Of course, the main cost for buyers will be equipment such as sensors and communications channels. That could come to as much as $350 per car by 2020, the DoT estimates. And carmakers are worried that they may find themselves liable for the injuries the V2V system may cause. Every safety system, even airbags, sometimes has unintended consequences, and a jury may not care that the system causes far fewer injuries than it prevents.
These are the sorts of problems that Uncle Sam used to solve with a big sweep of his arm. But that was in the days when government administration was in the hands of experts who worked toward a relatively small number of well-defined goals—like digging canals or putting a man on the moon—and could do so with little Congressional interference and plenty of public support. Those days are gone, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama argues in a recent, much-discussed essay. Fukuyama bases his case on the U.S. Forest Service. He might just as well have chosen the highway system.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.