- - Friday, August 22, 2014

The relentless pursuit of perfection, as one manufacturer puts it with only a little exaggeration, has made the automobile more comfortable, more reliable and more fun to drive than ever. Travel is easier and more economical. Anti-lock brakes enable drivers to steer away from obstacles. Stability control keeps the inexperienced from inadvertently sliding off a slick road. Detroit perfected these technologies, and they nearly always work.

But the bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Transportation, who invented only the paperwork machine, don’t trust the engineers at Ford, Mercedes, BMW and Toyota to judge what works best. In 2012, the federal busybodies mandated stability control and anti-lock brakes for every car — no exceptions. Few complained about the imposition because it had little practical effect. Nearly all cars had the systems already.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has come back for more, proposing last week to impose mandatory “vehicle-to-vehicle” communication devices in all cars. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

“This technology could move us from helping people survive crashes,” says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “to helping them avoid crashes altogether — saving lives, saving money and even saving fuel, thanks to the widespread benefits it offers.”

The idea is to have a communication module broadcast data from one car to another to “warn” that a car intends to make a left turn or is in a blind spot. It might actually be useful if a Cadillac could command the dawdling Toyota Prius in the left lane ahead to move over, but that’s not how it works.

Anyone who has plugged an address into a navigation system and been directed to a dead end will recognize the potential pitfalls. Even if such a system works flawlessly, it would give hackers a way to connect remotely to someone else’s car. This would be an astonishingly bad thing.

Automakers have already deployed blind-spot warning systems, adaptive cruise control and collision-detection systems that apply the brakes before the driver realizes something has gone wrong. Everybody wants his car to be safer. If systems work, consumers will pay a premium and demand more. If the systems don’t, they will join the eight-track tape, Betamax and HD-DVD on the island of bad ideas.

The government loves technologies that don’t work, and the trail of devices that don’t defy death, imposed by federal “safety” directives, is a long one. Airbags were mandated in 1999, and the early ones were too powerful, and 172 children were killed when the bags were deployed. The Virginia Department of Transportation finds that red-light revenue cameras caused a 29 percent increase in the number of accidents.

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered refiners to adulterate gasoline with a substance known as MTBE to “save the environment,” and only then learned that MTBE is highly toxic and poisons groundwater. MTBE delighted the bureaucrats, but by 2010 the cost of cleaning up Washington’s mess reached $2 billion.

Ford’s technology center employs 1,200 engineers. Their ideas are tested in the laboratory, in wind tunnels and on racetracks in the harshest conditions, on every corner of the globe. The U.S. Department of Transportation conducts tests with desks, cubicles, fax machines and paper clips to satisfy the urge to be “cool,” embracing trendy technology of the moment.

The federal bureaucrats are never held to account for poisoning the water, killing the children or causing accidents. They should never be allowed to drive from the backseat.