Will Driverless Cars be Connected?

After attending a couple of industry events, I’m now convinced that the industry is completely confused about the relationship between driverless and connected vehicles.  For this reason, I thought I’d start this blog post with some definitions.

  • Driverless Cars: NHTSA defines “Full Self-Driving Automation” (or driverless cars) as: “those in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration, and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode.”
  • Connected Vehicles: The Center for Automotive Research defines connected vehicles as vehicles that use any of a number of different communication technologies to communicate with the driver, other cars on the road (vehicle-to-vehicle [V2V]), roadside infrastructure (vehicle-to-infrastructure [V2I]), and the “Cloud.”

In layman’s terms, driverless cars use technology that exists solely within the car; this technology can read normal traffic signs, identify bicyclists’ hand signals, sense pedestrians, etc. Connected vehicles, on the other hand, rely on two-way communications (e.g., traffic signals communicating with cars).  Connected vehicles could be driverless, but that is not a necessity.  Driverless cars may have connected vehicle features, but that’s not a necessity.

So the question remains – will driverless cars be connected?  The industry has wide-ranging opinions on this question.

One perspective: These two technologies will be developed along two very separate paths.  Google seems to be investing solely in driverless car technology.  The USDOT’s connected vehicle research program is being advanced without any mention of driverless cars.  These could continue to be developed in isolation and then society’s adoption of either or both of them will depend on who gets to the market first (and what government regulations allow).

Another perspective: Autonomous vehicle and connected vehicle technologies will continue to be developed; however, the leaders in both of these areas will recognize the benefits of the other. Connected vehicle technologies could be incorporated into driverless vehicles.  Seemingly, this would only make driverless cars safer and more effective.

Can (or should) the government help to coordinate these seemingly disparate initiatives?


Additional information on connected vehicles: Currently, the government is investing heavily in the advancement of connected vehicle technologies.  The USDOT has a connected vehicle research program that is currently evaluating proposals for connected vehicle pilots around the country. The pilots include various combinations of applications “in innovative and cost-effective ways to improve traveler mobility and system productivity, while reducing environmental impacts and enhancing safety.”  Many of these require significant capital investments and stakeholder coordination due to their reliance on two-way communications.

About Lauren Isaac

I am the Manager of Transportation Sustainability at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Recently, I won the William Barclay Parsons fellowship for my research proposal to study how the United States government should respond to driverless cars. As I'm working on my research, I thought this blog would help to disseminate my findings and provide a forum for feedback.
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