By definition, autonomous cars will be able to drive themselves without being connected to external systems. And yet, they'll inevitably be connected. Hence, "Real-world autonomous driving" is an oxymoron. Susan Kuchinskas reports on the future of connected self-driving cars.

If you are going by a strict definition of autonomous, then a truly autonomous vehicle will navigate roadways by means of onboard systems – cameras, radars, sensors and computers.

And yet, it's pretty much guaranteed that all autonomous vehicles will be connected. And connectivity can help even that totally independent vehicle drive better while giving the driver a better experience.

While autonomous cars need to be independent of ubiquitous connectivity to the outside world, connectivity can provide "information on traffic situations, whether conditions are dangerous, the fitness of drivers around you, and the risk levels of intersections or roads.

"This will eventually make the autonomous vehicle even safer," says Andreas Mai, director of smart connected vehicles at Cisco. "So, yes, it needs to be literally autonomous, but at the same time, with connectivity, autonomy will become two levels safer.

Looking around

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) communications will add valuable information about the car's surroundings, according to Tim Evavold, director of connected car and dealer ecosystems at Covisint. He sees two basic kinds of connectivity that will be used for fully autonomous driving.

"One is the internet connection, so you can get remote maps, direct GPS and other services. There is also connection to the infrastructure around it: stoplights, guardrails, a series of things that uses dedicated short-range communications," Evavold says.

Second, while onboard systems should be able to identify, for example, barriers temporarily closing off a lane of traffic, connected autonomous cars could benefit from real-time information on traffic and road conditions, says Bryan Mistele, CEO of INRIX.

For example, it would be safer and better for a vehicle to know that another vehicle had encountered an icy patch a mile ahead, rather than waiting for onboard sensors to get close enough to detect the ice – or skidding cars.In fact, INRIX is already providing this kind of information to connected vehicles.

There's also the issue of an automaker's liability in case of system failure, Mistele says. "Automakers will want to monitor those vehicles very closely," he says.

Smarter cities

Beyond the individual car, there's a lot of value for drivers and citizens in sharing information from autonomous vehicles with city infrastructure.

Cisco is working with state, local and federal entities that are looking for business value from applications in connected or driverless cars, according to Barry Einsig, global public sector and transportation executive for Cisco.

A couple of Cisco's transit agency clients are looking at using DSRC for adjusting the timing of traffic signals – known as signal phase and timing – to reduce congestion. Cisco thinks a good strategy is to aggregate data from nodes on the network, including connected cars, pulling it into the cloud, performing analytics, and then sending predictions back to the network.

Some municipalities are looking at driverless vehicles to solve the last-mile problem, for example, how people get from home to a transportation hub like the train station.

Then, Einsig says, "You could use same infrastructure for other things, like driverless buses or taxicabs, platooning trucks or delivery services. It has to start with some application for which there is near-term economic benefit for the infrastructure," Einsig says.

Intelligent Mechatronic Systems (IMS)is working with the State of Oregon on its Road Usage Charge Program, an alternative to charging a tax-per-gallon on gasoline to pay for road maintenance. "The government pays for the program, and the driver benefits," notes Ben Miners, vice president of innovation for IMS.

A Happier Drive

Besides safety and traffic benefits, you could say connectivity is necessary to make autonomous driving less tedious. Mai asks, "If the car weren't connected, it would be a pretty boring commute. The autonomous car will be an extension of your office and phone, so you will expect the same level of connectivity."

Tom Taylor, vice president of strategy for Verizon Telematics, concurs. "We might provide specialized content and services in the vehicle that allow you to do your work better or live your life better -- just like we do today on the Verizon Wireless platform. Cars will be Wi-Fi-enabled and have LTE modems. When you move from living room to car, you bring the same services with you," he says.

IMS is also moving into driver health monitoring, forging partnerships with wearables manufacturers. Personal devices could connect with the car and, perhaps, deliver a message to the driver before she starts the car, letting her know her blood sugar is too low or her blood alcohol level is too high.

Challenges, now and future

There are three challenges for connected autonomous cars. The first is, who will pay for the data plan for connected autonomous cars? Taylor, of Verizon Telematics, sees the car simply being added to the individual's data plan. But who pays for DSRC and V2X connections?

That becomes more complicated when you factor in roaming. Cisco's Mai sees a future in which a connected vehicle selects the best connectivity method for a particular application being used. But this strategy must allow the driver to make decisions about cost versus quality of service.

"In some cases," he says, "there's a least-costly option that is just enough for what I'm trying to do at the moment."

Finally, Miners says that all these fancy connections and the services they provide must be highly usable. He says, "The technology to enable all of this is available today.

The challenge is making it available in a way that the driver can consume it intuitively. You should be able to get in your car and be able to enjoy your day transparently, without worrying about which gadget you need to pull out."

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