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NHTSA And Vehicular Communications - Nothing Better To Do But Create Cost

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photo - Automotive News

Commentary By Rick Carlton - Senior Motorsports Editor

Some days ago, I read a series of comments from NHTSA head David Strickland, suggesting a new agency effort to limit (or potentially eliminate entirely) telematic, mobile and online communications in vehicles. According to Stickland, the regulators are only interested in "....(keeping) people safe behind the wheel." Now, as a general rationale, his assertion will certainly play nicely with today's uber-perverse view of "safety", where three year-olds are encouraged to use mobile devices to day-trade in their cribs, and full-grown adults are required to wear helmets when riding their bicycles at the beach.

Although I appreciate that Strickland is clearly trying to come up with some "kinder, gentler" way to bully the auto industry into yet another round of "we'll take care of you - or else", it would be nice if the agency would, at least, come up with some actual facts to support their assertions. Particularly, before they bless us with yet another series of "guidelines," (read as regulatory mandates followed by tariffs, taxes, fines and other legislative roadblocks, that will certainly keep manufacturers from offering what the buying public wants, at a fair price.) Nonetheless, the game is afoot. As Strickland earnestly opined, the agency is simply attempting to, "...impart to future drivers that it's OK to not be connected when you're operating a car."

Really? What galaxy is this guy from, the Luddite Star Cluster? While, my wife and I have never been blessed with children, we do have nieces and nephews (that I particularly enjoy spoiling, if for no other reason than the ability to mess with the little peace and quiet that my sister and brother get as parents). As a result, I have observed first hand that these little critters go nowhere without the requisite mobile handheld voice, text, and camera devices, in addition to backpacks full of sub-laptop, tablet, and body computers. So, the suggestion that any Federal agency harbors the ability to "impart" anything useful to "future drivers," is just a holistically stupid notion, particularly when it comes to technology.

Further, and perhaps more importantly for us old folks who to still pay auto insurance and maintenance bills for their kids, available national accident statistics clearly fly in the face of Strickland's alleged concerns. Annual metrics illustrate that the number of serious vehicular incidents have been dropping across-the-board, and for some time. For example, between 2000 and 2009 aggregate accident totals have experienced an average of -1.6% annually, so its not as if there has been a sudden, and worrisome, increase in crashes driven by youngsters who own and use vehicular communications devices.

So in the end of the day, and whenever involving the Federal Government, the latest load of bureaucratic swill is really driven by money, spelled M..O..N..E..Y. If you've missed it, since Obama took office there has been a disturbing trend toward the Feds attempting to own and manage any market segment that harbors an active revenue stream - like the car business. So, in this case, Strickland's NHTSA "safety" two-step, is nothing more than the latest blunt instrument in the administration’s "free lunch, but not really" nanny state tool box.

Why do I say this? Well consider the following, for a moment. Clearly, telematics and vehicular communications systems are highly desirable to the average car buyer, whether its a kid or an adult, so these technologies aren't going anywhere. As a result there is going to be a lot of free-floating money in, and around, clever communications companies, who have been prescient enough to nurture significant commercial partnerships with various auto companies over the last 20 years.

Take On-Star, for example. The company already has better than six million commercial service subscribers in their database, at price points of between $19 to $29 a month. Even by my old school math, that equals a lot of liquid cash moving in the market based on nothing more than pushing a button so vehicular occupants can get directions, or restaurant recommendations in real-time. Nonetheless, with technology becoming more intrinsic to the fabric of today's society, folks have gotten smarter about using "on the go" communications, and as result, the ability to go from home, to car, to office, to car, to home has morphed from being a luxury to a necessity.

So, if this growth pattern continues apace, why would NHTSA potentially want to stem the tide? The fact is, they don't. But, instead want to get their nose near the feed trough, by attempting to control emergent vehicular communications "standards," while attempting to herd all of the likely cash cows like On-Star to a "bank" of their choosing. However, the agency has no current standing in the auto communications segment. So, how does one shoehorn oneself into this deal? Well, one either buys-in as a commercial partner, which would be entirely contrary to any bureaucratic doctrine (particularly this current administration), or one simply attempts to take control of the entire deal from the top down. And the first step there is to begin to rhetorically threaten current stakeholders with things that are likely to make the daily news cycle, like concerns about mobile communications in the context of "new driver safety."

Much of this is just conjecture of course. But, what I do know is that I have never seen a bureaucrat that didn't love creating cost on the backs of the marketplace, however, its always the customer that has to pay the freight. So get prepared sports fans. As proposed in Animal Farm, "Some Animals are more equal than others," and between Orwell's 1945 literary assertion and today, nothing much has changed.