Oct 03 2013

Connected Cars Will Rely on Technology, Partnership and Policy

Experts from industry and government discuss the challenges and opportunities of connected vehicles.
Volvo Connected Cars
Credit: Jimmy Daly

Pictured from left to right: Dr. Peter Mertens, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Volvo; Claes Tingvall, Director of Traffic Safety at the Swedish Transport Administration; Clifford Nass, Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University; Lauren Fix, automotive expert and television host; and Jayne O'Donnell, consumer reporter at USA Today.

Whether connected cars have a significant impact on safety, traffic and the environment will depend heavily on legislation as well as technology.

Automotive safety experts from Volvo, the Swedish government and Stanford University gathered at the House of Sweden in Washington, D.C., to discuss the safety benefits and security risks associated with connected cars. Volvo's stated goal is to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries in its cars by 2020. The company believes that the conversation about car safety should evolve from a passive model (airbags and seatbelts) to an active one (crash avoidance). Does the technology exist to make this happen in just seven years? And can the government and the auto industry agree on regulation that will protect drivers without slowing innovation? In short: It's possible, but we have a long way to go.

Here's a look at the topics discussed between these leading authorities in the field.

What Are Cars Connected to?

Dr. Peter Mertens, senior vice president of research and development at Volvo, explained that there are two types of connections that enable cars to send and receive data:

  1. Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) connections enable vehicles to send data directly to other cars. For example, if a car senses ice on the road, it can alert other cars nearby.
  2. Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) connections enable cars to send and receive data from such things as traffic lights, road signs and even the road itself.

Each type of connection enables innovative safety features, and they are not mutually exclusive. It won't be uncommon in the near future for cars to tell nearby vehicles about potholes while gathering and sending information about traffic conditions to light poles.

There are concerns that each model could be subject government regulation and data collection. Stanford University Professor Clifford Naas proposed a hybrid model where cars create their own infrastructure by sharing data to a central location that can be accessed by other cars. Similar to the popular mobile app Waze, cars could automatically send data about speed traps, accidents or other road conditions to an open platform. This model also creates security concerns, but because no data transmission technique is completely secure, this is an imperfection that drivers will have to accept in order to leverage the benefits of connected vehicles.

Whose Data Is It Anyway?

After the event, Volvo sponsored a roundtable discussion with automotive expert Lauren Fix, Volvo Technical Expert Stefen Solyom and FedTech's Jimmy Daly.

When cars create data, who does it belong to? Mertens insisted that the data generated by Volvo cars belongs solely to the owner of the car. This issue is clouded by the fact that data must leave the vehicle to communicate with infrastructure or other vehicles. As automotive expert Lauren Fix noted, "Consumers might not like the word 'connected' in the wake of the NSA revelations."

There is room in this growing space for the private sector, possibly even the automotive industry, to fill the role of data collector and analyzer. In the Waze-like model suggested by Naas, government won't control the data if a business can. He noted that companies like Google probably know more about us than the NSA but the trade-off (a useful search engine, free email, maps) is evident and, in the minds of most Americans, fair.

While many drivers would prefer that the government not have access to their data, they will likely want some regulation in order to make sure their data is protected. Craig Timberg of the The Washington Post explains:

Cars have long gathered data to monitor safety and performance. But their newfound connectivity may allow a range of parties — automakers, software developers, perhaps even police officers — new access to such information, privacy advocates say. Because few U.S. laws govern these issues, consumers have little control over who can see this data and how it can be used.

Are Computers Better Drivers Than Humans?

According to Naas, the short answer is, "Not yet." Studies show that the human brain's situational awareness far surpasses that of computers. Computers shine when it comes to using data to make decisions and execute. Automotive expert Lauren Fix, a professionally trained race car driver who has had the chance to test-drive early versions of connected cars, described a situation in which she recognized that she needed to slow down and the car slowed before her foot could hit the brake. As this technology develops furthers, cars will be able to turn data into action, or inaction, depending on the circumstances. As Mertens made clear, Volvo's human-centric approach means that the driver can always override the car's computer system. The technology should make the act of driving safer, but it's not yet a substitute for the driver's attention.

What Is the Future of Connected Cars?

Claes Tingvall, the director of traffic safety at the Swedish Transport Administration, pointed out that connected vehicles could completely change the way cities approach infrastructure. For example, traffic lanes are wider than cars in order to accommodate a small degree of error. If cars could could communicate with each other and the road, lanes could be narrower. This would lead to decreased traffic congestion and provide existing roads an increased capacity for cars.

Looking forward, there are several areas that need to be addressed in order for connected cars to succeed; namely, improved safety. Auto manufacturers need to agree on data standards so that cars from different automakers can communicate effectively. Local governments need to get involved in the buildout of infrastructure to support V2I communication. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (whose members had planned to participate in this event but couldn't because of the federal government shutdown) will need to address the new safety concerns that this technology creates.