Transportation officials plan to establish rules requiring that new vehicles be able to "talk" to each other by the time President Obama leaves office, setting off a spat between U.S. automakers and tech companies over airwaves now reserved for road safety.
The rule being crafted by the Department of Transportation would allow vehicles to exchange information about their speed and location, which the government estimates would avoid or mitigate roughly 80 percent of crashes involving nonimpaired drivers. In 2012, the department estimates, 16,000 of the 34,000 accidents involving non-impaired drivers could have been avoided.
Vehicles would use radio signals to transmit information 10 times per second, a continual conversation that would warn drivers of impending collisions, alert them to cars in their blind spots, and provide other safety information.
Automakers say that implementing the system would raise the price of a new vehicle by a few hundred dollars.
At issue, however, are the radio frequencies now provided exclusively to automakers that would allow cars to speak to each other. The clash puts two industries — and their deep-pocketed lobbyists — against one another in a showdown over untapped airwaves.
The Federal Communications Commission is weighing a proposal to make those frequencies available for multiple purposes -- a demand made by tech companies clamoring for additional space for Web data.
The auto industry says that opening up the airwaves could endanger the safety program.
"This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky technology that is decades away as you might hear," said Paul Feenstra, senior vice president for government and external affairs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
"What we are concerned about is that we’re talking about potentially life-saving technology that we don’t want to put in jeopardy," he added. "Science and the data need to be what drives the policy decisions and not the other way around."
Though crash-avoidance technology is becoming more common, some auto groups warn of potential pitfalls for the sweeping program.
“What remains to be addressed is security and privacy, along with consumer acceptance, affordability, achieving the critical mass to enable the network effect' and establishment of the necessary legal and regulatory framework," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said.
Comcast, Google and other tech titans say automakers are essentially squatting on valuable, untapped terrain, arguing that the network needed to facilitate a legion of talking cars is years away from completion. Tech companies also insist they can access the spectrum without harming the safety effort.
The Obama administration glosses over such concerns when trumpeting the potential for the program.
"Think of all the everyday situations that this technology could help with: when folks pull up to a four-way stop, driving behind a big truck or an SUV that limits your visibility or even making a lane change and a car moves into your blind spot," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
Without taking sides, one senior administration official said the standoff should not get in the way of a potentially landmark reform.
“Sure, there’s a lot of unknowns here,” said the official, who is involved in the transportation initiative. “It’s certainly ambitious, but the potential is so great — it would be foolish not to explore it.”