- - Sunday, February 8, 2015


Developing state-of-the-art technology for self-driving cars, building highly advanced robotics, and working to create greater interface between humans and machines — all of these laudable projects are certainly worthy of ongoing research, possibly even government partnerships with private enterprise. Why, though, in the wake of a resurgent American automobile industry, would NASA choose to partner with Yokohama, Japan-based Nissan Motor Co. to help accomplish these research goals?

Has President Obama or NASA’s top administrator ever heard of Ford, General Motors or Chrysler, and have they ignored or forgotten the successful track record of American companies working to help our nation?

Nissan Motors and NASA’s Ames Research Center in California recently announced plans to ramp up a five-year research-and-development partnership to create “autonomous, zero emission” vehicles. NASA would like to create and deploy highly advanced driverless vehicles to help scientists explore distant planetary landscapes. Nissan obviously wants to perfect driverless car technology for profit — for use in commercially sold vehicles. Actual vehicle testing of the NASA-Nissan self-driving car could begin by the end of this year, according to reports.

It seems common-sense logic that if a partnership between NASA and an automobile manufacturer is to be formed, the president and NASA would at least explore the option of offering a partnership opportunity to an American automobile company. Our auto industry has a long and storied history of successfully partnering with our government. Why shouldn’t an American automaker work with NASA on such an advanced, collaborative project that obviously includes technology-sharing?

Certainly NASA’s present administrator, retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr., is well aware of the past history of how U.S. manufacturers have served our country in time of need. During World War II, General Motors manufactured millions of high-precision aircraft engine parts, its Cadillac division switched from making cars to tanks. GM produced millions of pounds of forgings for military trucks, guns and aircraft, and GM also produced millions of rounds of artillery ammunition and tens of thousands of machine guns.

In an amazing effort, Ford built nearly 87,000 B-24 Liberator bombers during World War II. Chrysler helped redesign the engine for the famous B-29 Superfortress bomber and also designed and built tanks and other military vehicles.

News reports suggest that a former senior scientist at NASA — now head of Nissan’s Silicon Valley Research Center — is a main catalyst in this partnership. While this arrangement is understandable on the surface, Mr. Obama and NASA’s top administrator should have realized that a project of this magnitude, one with significant national security implications, required more consideration and a through vetting of numerous potential partners.

Information- and technology-sharing between any government entity and the private sector should be done with diligence and with national security in mind. There are plenty of options available to NASA to partner with American companies that are also working to develop advanced technology and driverless vehicles.

NASA should expand its search of potential partners to more than the companies of former employees. At a time when our national economy is still struggling and our elected officials are desperately searching for ways to create synergy between our government and the private sector to create jobs, this was clearly a missed opportunity.

Ken Blackwell is a former Ohio treasurer of state and undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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