Driverless cars: could net neutrality cost lives?


Sophie Curtis

August 1, 2014

Driverless cars are coming to Britain ‘in less than six months’, but Sophie Curtis discovers there are still some connectivity issues to be thrashed out

The driverless car revolution may finally almost be upon us. Yesterday Vince Cable announced that driverless technology will see “fleets” of satellite-controlled vehicles on Britain’s roads within years.

The Business Secretary said new measures will allow driverless cars to “take to our streets in less than six months ”, and some cars have automated services – such as driverless parking – built in already.

But driverless cars raise a lot of questions, not least around the safety of vehicles that rely on a permanent high-quality internet connection in areas where coverage is patchy and bandwidth unreliable.

The arrival of this new technology coincides with an ongoing debate about net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data on the internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, site, platform, or application.

With the rise of video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, this principle is being challenged, as these services need a reliable connection to deliver an uninterrupted service to their customers.

In the United States, Netflix already pays all three of the biggest internet service providers an extra fee to make sure its content gets to customers without any delays. However, European regulators are fighting to preserve net neutrality .

When it comes to driverless cars, vehicle manufacturers will face a similar debate. If they want to ensure the safety of their customers, they will most likely have to persuade service providers to give them a prioritised connection.

While the big car manufacturers may be able to afford this, smaller companies may not, according to Gary Newe, senior systems engineering manager at F5 Networks.

He warned that if connectivity is lost within a driverless car, or the connection is too slow for the car to communicate its location or receive special instructions, the results could be devastating.

“Imagine you’re in a self-driving car on the motorway and the network becomes congested, and all the people with the expensive cars and the best service get the information across first, whereas the other cars don’t,” said Newe

“Ultimately if all the processing is done off-site and not directly in the car itself, then the car will potentially be cut off from its brain. Technically there could be potential safety issues.”

Newe said that this could be even more dangerous if emergency services are using connected vehicle systems to transmit patients’ vital signs to a hospital in real-time, and the connection fails.

While these scenarios are extreme, they raise important questions about the impact of net neutrality on the rollout of driverless cars – questions that have not yet been addressed by the likes of Vince Cable.

The counter argument is that upholding net neutrality in the case of driverless cars is more of a risk than the operators employing traffic management techniques, as the risk of traffic congestion on a broader scale is higher.

If Cable is serious about putting Britain “at the forefront of this transformational technology”, he will need to be able to guarantee the safety of people who use it, and that will involve thrashing out these issues with both car manufacturers and ISPs.

“As internet and connectivity continues to play a huge part in our lives, we need to make sure that net-neutrality also continues to play a part,” said Newe.

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