Critics are blasting a new Environmental Protection Agency rule that they claim breaks the Trump administration's commitment not to arbitrarily pick winners and losers in the self-driving car market.
Tucked into the EPA’s proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient, or SAFE, Vehicles rule released in August is language that would give companies credit toward emissions standards for producing cars that include vehicle-to-vehicle communication capabilities---technology that allows autonomous cars to exchange speed and position information with each other to prevent accidents.
The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are suggesting that the credit, which might be granted without a requirement for corroborating evidence that the technology reduces carbon dioxide output, be tied to a car's ability to transmit data using dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC, which relies upon a specific wireless spectrum to blast out signals.
Shortly before President Trump was sworn into office, the Obama administration released a controversial draft rule mandating that DSRC be used in autonomous cars. The Trump administration reportedly shelved the proposal, and some manufacturers are starting to use cellular communication instead, which proponents argue is more reliable and has a longer range.
Companies such as Audi and Ford have embraced the technology and demonstrated it in vehicles earlier this year.
Toyota and General Motors, meanwhile, have adopted DSRC, though it's unclear why that system was chosen by the EPA. Neither manufacturer responded to inquires about whether it had lobbied for the provision.
GM, which offered dedicated short-range communications in some 2017 Cadillac sedans, pledged in July to expand it to other vehicles.
Other manufacturers such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz raised concerns over the technology's security vulnerabilities, however, and critics of the EPA proposal say the Department of Transportation, which encompasses the traffic safety administration and has repeatedly stressed that it would take a technology-neutral approach to regulating self-driving vehicles, is reneging on its commitment.
“If they were to go forward with this, this would violate the [agency’s] pledge to technology neutrality,” Marc Scribner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner. “What they are doing is picking technology winners and losers."
That might be happening at the expense of better, safer options.
“It creates, inadvertently, technological lock-in,” Ryan Hagemann, senior director for policy at the Niskanen Center, said in an interview. “You are more likely to simply rest on your laurels and default to what the standard is rather than trying to improve on top of it.”
Scribner said the provision could also spur other companies to “lobby to try to gain similar favors in the future for their particular technologies” and anger environmentalists who were already critical of the data EPA used to justify credits.
“It could wind up putting a big target on the entire program’s back,” he said.
The EPA directed inquiries to the Department of Transportation, which referred inquiries to the traffic safety administration. That organization said it would carefully consider all comments before enacting a final rule.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which counts GM and Toyota as members, also supported DSRC. Executives at the group met with officials from the transportation department, the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget in June to discuss the SAFE Vehicles rule. A spokesman for the group was unaware whether the provision was discussed.
“If those types of credits were brought up, they would have played a very minor role in the discussion,” he said in an emailed response to inquiries. While self-driving technology is an unconventional means of reducing toxic emissions from vehicles, it is effective, he added.
“The agencies should incentivize the adoption of these technologies and provide for possibly additional credit,” he said.