Autonomous vs connected vehicles – what’s the difference?

Suzanne Murtha | 02 Oct 2015 | Comments

I frequently read articles and heated commentary in the media related to connected and autonomous vehicles, but it’s not always clear that these are two distinct technologies. The terms are often used incorrectly, which creates misconceptions about one or the other—and this confusion can actually stall progress when implications are incorrectly applied where they do not belong.

So what’s the difference? Which one helps me get home faster by avoiding traffic congestion and which one helps me avoid auto-collisions?

Connected Vehicles (CVs)

Simply stated, connected vehicle technologies allow vehicles to communicate with each other and the world around them. Your vehicle is likely already more connected than you realize. Navigation systems already include connected vehicle functionality, such as dynamic route guidance. Your GPS-based system receives information on congestion in the road ahead through cellular signals (4G LTE or 3G) and suggests an alternative route.

The connected vehicle concept is about supplying useful information to a driver or a vehicle to help the driver make safer or more informed decisions. Use of a “connected vehicle” doesn’t imply that the vehicle is making any choices for the driver. Rather, it supplies information to the driver, including potentially dangerous situations to avoid.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has been working on a CV program that communicates within a radio spectrum specifically allocated by the Federal Communications Commission in 1999 for this purpose. And by the end of this year, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will propose a rule mandating inclusion of 5.9 GHz-based equipment in all new vehicles to make them CV-ready. This technology has the potential to eliminate 80 percent of unimpaired crash scenarios that could save tens of thousands of lives each year.

Without compromising personal information, this technology will also enable transportation agencies to access vehicle data related to speed, location and trajectory—enabling better management of traffic flow as the ability to address specific problems in real-time. So in addition to sending information to the driver, CVs will send information to transportation agencies to enhance their knowledge of real-time road conditions, as well as generate historic data that will help agencies better plan and allocate future resources (which are typically stretched far too thin). By deploying roadside equipment, which reads and sends signals to and from these vehicles, transportation agencies can fully participate in the nationwide deployment of the connected vehicle system.

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs)

Some vehicles are already being deployed with autonomous functionality, such as self-parking or auto-collision avoidance features. But, until a vehicle can drive itself independently, it is not a true autonomous vehicle (AV). A fully autonomous vehicle does not require a human driver—rather, they are computer-driven. Most manufacturers will phase in various levels of autonomy until fully autonomous vehicles are widely tested and accepted by the general public.

Unlike connected vehicles, transportation agencies have little control over the deployment of these autonomous vehicles or the technology they use—this is controlled by the private sector companies who are building them, and responding to market forces. However, there are some actions agencies can do now to help encourage deployment of autonomous vehicles. For example, some agencies are already working to improve road striping and signage that will aid autonomous vehicles’ recognition of the road. Agencies can also encourage and support policies that will further AV deployment, such as certification policies, licensing rules, and following distance standards.

Autonomous vehicles do not need connected vehicle technology to function since they must be able to independently navigate the road network. However, CV technologies provide valuable information about the road ahead—allowing rerouting based on new information such as a lane closures or obstacles on the road. By incorporating CV technology, AVs will be safer, faster, and more efficient.

Furthermore, virtually all autonomous vehicles will require some form of connectivity to ensure software and data sets are current. As autonomous vehicles rely on knowing the roadway they are traveling on, changes to the roadside such as new development or construction will require the type of real-time exchange of information that CV technology provides.

While a complex task, transportation agencies need to be ready to support both connected and autonomous vehicles. By making the best use of technology, setting specific time frames for deployments, and addressing specific regional/geographic needs, we’re working to help our clients bring both connected and autonomous vehicles to the road.

The North America CAV report is available to access here (PDF).

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