Boats Against the Current: Regulating Intelligent Transportation Systems

By Andrew Braverman
Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) will dramatically re-envision the way people move throughout their lives. An amorphous category, ITS generally refer to both vehicle technology, like the advances in autonomous vehicles (AVs) and electric vehicles (EVs), as well as the digitization of infrastructure often grouped in with "smart cities.” Thousands of lives and millions of dollars could be saved by renovating the U.S.’ crumbling infrastructure and innovating transportation safety. Small communities across the country could be revitalized as they become better connected with their environs. ITS diffusion will reduce congestion and lower emissions from the largest source of CO2 in the United States.

Exaggerated promises around ITS are nothing new in Washington. There are some situations in which a laissez-faire approach from government could facilitate innovation. But an effective regulatory structure around ITS is as important as any policy challenge today, given the outsized potential for good and ill that such a dramatic re-envisioning of U.S. communities has. It is an incredibly complex challenge that will need to align multiple levels of government and representatives from disparate industries. In order to create safer and more durable ITS, policy makers must create data privacy protections for ITS’, shift more jurisdiction over vehicle operation to the federal level, and encourage uniformity of CV (connected vehicle) technology.

Data Protection: Congressional inaction on federal data privacy is one of the largest tech policy failures of the century. The inadequacy of varying state-level ITS laws is thrown into sharp relief when one imagines a vehicle crossing a state border. Further exacerbating this issue, thousands of different companies will handle user data in ITS’—from the vendor of traffic light software to the telcos sharing their towers for V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communication. It is vital to establish some basic requirements. NHTSA has asserted their authority here, applying NISTS’ Fair Information Practice Principles and the 2007 Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Consortium Privacy Policies Framework. They may be the best regulator but could likely use greater support from elsewhere in government. Sectoral data protection regulation has provided a patch for certain industries; perhaps it could with ITS as well. Industry must seek a way to anonymize and aggregate large amounts of data so they can use it to improve safety features in vehicles and infrastructure. Any solution to this problem must dictate limits on user data storage time, encourage high levels of transparency, and ban data resale as well. Focusing on the protection of user data simultaneously begins to address the manifold cybersecurity concerns around AVs/CVs. Stakeholders can then capitalize on that momentum by building on Auto-ISAC's cybersecurity principles.

Federal Oversight: Inconsistent state and municipal regulations pose a risk to AV rollout and ITS incentive packages. There has traditionally been a balance struck on vehicular and infrastructure oversight between the local and federal levels; federal government regulates car manufacturing like seatbelt and airbag standards, while state governments oversee their operation like processing drivers licenses. But the distinction between these jurisdictions may blur as AVs become increasingly complex. The only way to bridge this disconnect may be to centralize more oversight to the federal level. Legislation or agency rulemaking around ITS or CVs could find a way to define and create a set of interoperable options that states can choose from. Liability laws also vary from state to state, creating a complicated regulatory environment for automakers and telcos. A potpourri of 50 laws is not the answer and will deter ITS investment by private companies that are daunted by onerous compliance.

Standardized CV Technology: Another policy problem preventing the proliferation of CVs involves indecision between two largely incompatible technologies used to facilitate communication between vehicles and infrastructure (V2I) and other vehicles (V2V): dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) and Connected Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X). The debate centers on the use of spectrum in ITS technology. Two decades ago, a series of decisions at the FCC created the ITS spectrum band. This solidified DSRC as the de facto CV technology. Industry and government worked together to research and popularize DSRC, resulting in 15,000 DSRC-installed vehicles on the road today. But in 2017, C-V2X appeared. Some stakeholders argued that it was superior technology, optimized for the diffusion of 5G. In response, the FCC segmented the ITS spectrum band, giving some of it expressly to C-V2X and the rest to unlicensed use (read: none for DSRC). This ignited contentious disagreement between the FCC and the DOT and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Elsewhere in the world, China has mandated use of C-V2X. The EU is exploring whether they can balance both technologies for different uses. As some experts pointed out, the question of which technology to pursue is not as important as just making a choice. Indecision has paralyzed U.S. regulation of CVs while allies and competitors alike roll ahead. 

U.S. taxpayers spend at least $140 billion per year to cover roadway “emergency response...and property damage related costs.” Modernizing U.S. infrastructure and vehicles by enhancing their ability to communicate will drastically reduce this financial and social price. Regulators in the federal government face a minefield of challenges in the promulgation of ITS’. They must move quickly but be wary: incentivize new pilot programs but ensure sedulous oversight. One of the trickiest parts of creating a vibrant market for successful ITS is a first-mover disadvantage: there’s no reason to deploy a stop sign covered in sensors if none of the surrounding vehicles have similar V2X capabilities. But, once a critical level of usage is reached, technologies will rapidly scale, becoming cheaper and more widespread. Smaller, targeted measures may be a good place to start. Congress could mandate the use of V2X-enhanced communications in cars to more quickly contact emergency medical services. The DOT could leverage their INFRA Grants Program and future infrastructure funding could earmark more funds for the ITS Joint Program Office. Whatever vehicle of advancing this cause lawmakers choose, the time has come for a more coordinated, bold investment in ITS.

Andrew Braverman is a research intern with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Strategic Technologies Blog is produced by the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).