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Automated Driving Key to Obama Legacy

by Roger Lanctot | 8月 23, 2016

President Barack Obama has a legacy deficit. 

True, this ground-breaking, Nobel Prize-winning leader forged a massive economic recovery, brokered a nuclear non-proliferation agreement, commenced relations with a long-shunned hemispheric neighbor, expanded health care coverage, turned back discrimination based on sexual orientation, confronted authoritarian and rogue states and terrorists and tackled climate change.  But something is missing:

A vision for the future of the automotive industry.

President Obama came into office with annual highway fatalities in the midst of a prolonged decline facilitated by the mandated adoption of safety technologies ranging from seatbelts and airbags to electronic stability control.  He is set to leave office with annual highway fatalities on the rise and the emergence of airbags that can kill drivers.

Thanks to some excellent reporting from the New York Times we know that President Obama, in his first seven years, finalized 560 major regulations - "those classified by the Congressional Budget Office as having particularly significant economic or social impacts."  The Times tells us this is 50 percent more than the actions taken by the preceding administration.

http://tinyurl.com/zuukgm3 - "Once Skeptical of Executive Power, Obama Came to Embrace It" - NYTimes

In the context of this frenetic regulatory activity it is surprising to discover that action related to the automotive industry is virtually non-existent.  Aside from raising fuel efficiency standards (already unraveling in the face of plunging fuel prices), the single auto-related regulatory issue addressed by the Obama administration was completing the regulations regarding back-up cameras - to be required in cars by 2018 – an initiative that began long before he took office.

The paucity of automotive actions is shocking in the context of Obama's baptism-by-fire economic recovery program which included a massive bailout of the automotive industry.  The Obama Administration’s reaction to the crisis conferred the status of critical economic infrastructure upon the auto industry.

Since then…nothing.

As if to put an exclamation point on Obama's current neglect of the automotive industry, the number of fatalities on U.S. highways spiked 7.7% in 2015 to more than 35,000 - nearly 100 daily highway fatalities.  One can imagine Obama beset and distracted by Congressional intransigence and international conflicts ranging from Syria to Ukraine to China and failing to take on the plague of vehicle-related death.

Obama’s neglect of the automotive industry is reflected in the current presidential campaign.  In twin visits to Detroit last week the closest the two major party candidates came to addressing automotive safety issues was to promise massive spending on upgrading the country’s aging infrastructure.

One begins to wonder if politicians in Washington regard the automotive industry as somehow radioactive.  Cars kill people, but if a politician tries to take on the industry he or she is perceived as a job-killing regulator.

Legislators overcame their normal hands off inclination in the past two years after failures and recalls and investigations starting with Toyota (unintended acceleration) continuing with GM (ignition switches) and Honda (unreported accident fatalities) and Takata (deadly airbags) and concluding with Volkswagen (diesel deception).  Republicans and Democrats alike took advantage of the opportunity to haul auto executives before Congress and humiliate them live on C-SPAN.

Multiple committees and programs were subsequently launched to take on auto-related cybersecurity, privacy, recall and regulatory compliance, and automated driving.  Even issues related to the consumer’s right to repair or modify his or her car were in play in connection with the reconsideration of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.  

Lost in all the noise has been the rising body count and the lack of a game plan to rein it in.  The last major regulatory action from the U.S. DOT, aside from the back-up camera mandate (expected to save 200-300 lives annually) was the airbag mandate adopted under the Reagan Administration and only after determined and clever political manipulation by then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole.

In essence, and in the context of the current "job-creating" political environment, advocating for safety on behalf of the victims of vehicle flaws or in the interest of overcoming the limitations of current vehicle technology, bears with it the air of industry regulation and overbearing government intervention.  Safety advocacy has somehow come to be perceived as a job killer rather than an opportunity creator.

Even the onset of autonomous driving has been described by some analysts and experts as a job killer rather than a life saver – as if the human driving of cars is some zero-sum game where humans lose if computers win.  If this mentality persists and proliferates we are truly lost.

With more than 1.2M souls lost annually on highways throughout the world, safety and automated driving represent a substantial export market opportunity.  It is with this in mind that the USDOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are closing in on a publication date for their guidelines for testing and deploying autonomous vehicles.

With the clock running down, Obama appointees Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind may salvage a chestnut of progress from the automotive policy vacuum of the Obama Administration.  When the policy is announced – and it is most likely to reflect Rosekind’s collaborative spin intended to foster the greatest, fastest development and adoption – the U.S. may finally step to the fore in leading global automotive safety.

The best news of all is that the automated driving policy position anticipated in the waning months of the current administration will greatly overshadow the less successful effort at the USDOT to foster the development of vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology based on dedicated short range communication (DSRC) technology.  As the Obama administration draws to a close, DSRC technology is subject to further study while the standard itself is subject to ongoing modification.

Automated driving, initiated as it was by the Federal government in the form of the DARPA program, and carried forward by innovators from Silicon Valley and throughout the world, offers a moonshot-style opportunity suitable to be taken on by the next Administration with a boost from the current one.  Automated driving offers the immediate short-term prospect of saving lives while also extending a legacy lifeline to President Obama.

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