Navigant Research Blog

Connected Cars Offer Safety Risks and Rewards

Scott Shepard — November 27, 2013

Distracted driving is becoming an increasingly severe problem in nations around the world.  Texting and cell phone use while driving continues to rise, despite harsher penalties for cell phone use.  Teen drivers are especially notorious for this trend.  In addition, vehicle information and entertainment systems are becoming more engaging, thanks to connected-car technology offered by automakers in partnership with communications providers.  While the adoption of communications technologies in vehicles presents serious safety concerns, the promise of the connected car is to make the driving experience less stressful and less dangerous.

When connected vehicles communicate with other connected vehicles, they can alert each other to their presence on the road and avoid accidents.  As described in the Navigant Research report, Autonomous Vehicles, when communications systems are used in tandem with automated driving systems, the driving experience can be removed from the driver entirely – removing human error and therefore making driving more efficient and safer.

Danger Ahead

The road to achieve this transformation, however, is likely to become more dangerous before it becomes less.  While the necessary technologies exist to make connected/automated driving possible today, the legal and regulatory barriers to be overcome are significant.  Therefore, drivers are likely to become more connected before their vehicles do – creating more distractions in the near term.

While the process of connecting people via smart phones has been quick, the process of connecting all vehicles will be very slow.  If every new vehicle sold from today forward had both connectivity and automated driving systems that enabled autonomous vehicle operation, the entire fleet would not be connected for another 15 to 20 years.  Therefore, while there are some fully autonomous vehicles on roads via various test pilots, mass-market adoption of these technologies will not take place for years, and the safety benefits will take longer to realize.

The first step is allowing autonomous vehicles on roads, and various U.S. and European local and national governments are beginning to develop policies to open their roadways to limited autonomous technology.  The second step is defining who may liable in the result of an accident.  While autonomous vehicles have proven significant safety achievements over conventional vehicles, these systems will fail and accidents will happen, as was made clear at the Connected Car Expo this last week in Los Angeles.

The last and possibly hardest step is vehicle data access.  Outside of opportunities for increased safety, connected vehicles will provide companies with new targeted advertising opportunities, and will enable local and federal governments to better manage traffic congestion and to develop policies concerning road infrastructure development and taxation.  Privacy concerns are pivotal in this regard.  The most resistant stakeholders to the advances and benefits of connected vehicles are likely to be the vehicle owners themselves.

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