What Would Net Neutrality Mean for Driverless Cars?

connected driverless cars

If you’ve been following the news on net neutrality (and indeed it has been promised to be a hot topic at this week’s CES, despite FCC head Ajit Pai’s absence due to death threats made against him), then you may know that driverless car technology played a key role in the discussion.

Comcast brought up net neutrality, or the principle that the internet should treat all data equally and not charge higher or lower rates for certain content or users, in the statements they submitted to the FCC. And in his argument against it, Federal Commissioner Michael O’Reilly stated:

“I, for one, see great value in the prioritization of telemedicine and autonomous car technology over cat videos…Consider that each autonomous vehicle is predicted to generate an additional four terabytes of data a day, much of which will be carried by wireless networks. It’s hard to imagine that some prioritization of traffic won’t be necessary, further undermining attempts to ban such practices.”

net neutrality fcc protestors
(Photo: The New York Times)

If people hadn’t already been thinking about net neutrality in the context of driverless cars, they sure are now. This brings up the obvious question:

What would net neutrality mean in a world with driverless cars?

Let’s start with the world Comcast and the Commissioner imagined in their opposition to net neutrality. In this scenario, the repeal of net neutrality means that car companies can pay for “internet fast lanes” that ensure autonomous cars get priority access to the internet.

Without net neutrality, you’ll have winners and losers. Car companies that can afford to pay for that fast lane will have it, but smaller car companies and people with less to spend could end up with cars that don’t have that secured access to the internet.

Since connected car technology depends on cars being able to communication with each other and tap into the larger network of traffic information and maps, internet access is crucial for safe and efficient transport of people – lives are on the line. So how do we pro/con this debate?

Driverless Cars WITHOUT Net Neutrality

The good of this scenario:

Again, without net neutrality, companies can pay for fast lane – if they can afford it. And what is America without capitalism?

Proponents of repealing net neutrality (er, opponents of net neutrality), maintain that self-driving cars need to be able to rely on optimal, fast internet services ALL.THE.TIME. or risk serious – even deadly – consequences. In a world without net neutrality, companies can theoretically pay for and offer this reliability.

The bad of this scenario:

This could mean a serious class divide in who can use cars when. People with less to spend may be stuck waiting in autonomous cars for the network to clear out so their car can gain access – imagine the “buffering” you see on Netflix, but applied to your car.

In a worst-case scenario, it could mean cars going offline in the middle of a ride – putting both the person inside and everyone else on the road in danger if it can’t access the real-time traffic information.

Since the safety of one car on the road affects the safety of everyone, it’s likely that the government would create rules to allow only cars with fast-track access on the roads to avoid that worst-case scenario. That would mean only big companies can compete, driving smaller companies out of the connected car business and potentially stifling innovation.

driverless cars and net neutrality

Driverless Cars WITH Net Neutrality

The good of this scenario:

All car companies would have equal access to the internet, meaning that smaller companies could still compete and people with less money to spend on transportation are more likely to be able to access self-driving car options.

Additionally, legislation could be written for and apply to all companies and all citizens, simplifying what is already promising to be an arduous process in this age of lightning fast innovation that affects our public infrastructure.

The bad of this scenario:

Opponents of net neutrality maintain that if thousands of cars are on the road in every city accessing the internet at once, it could become overtaxed and not work as well for anyone. This brings us back to the “buffering” scenario from above – people stuck sitting in their cars waiting until the signal is good enough to get moving again.

In this case the situation would resemble the issues we have now. Everyone would be dealing with the frustrations of traffic and waiting equally, rather than there being a class divide in how it shakes out.

Repealing net neutrality could mean a serious class division regarding WHO can use the roads WHEN.

Other Possibilities?

Based on the arguments made by Comcast and the FCC, those seem to be our main options, but other experts have argued that those comments are actually disingenuous. There are a couple of reasons to believe that connected car technology will fall outside of the issue of net neutrality completely.

For one thing, as Wired points out, the original net neutrality order created a category of services that were exempt from net neutrality. Things like telemedicine technology that have a life or death importance are considered non-BIAS data services that are entitled to priority internet access even under the rules of net neutrality. Driverless cars would very likely be classified that way as well.

(But “very likely” is the crux of this debate, is it not?)

Further, The Verge made the case that the FCC has already set aside a spectrum in the 5.9GHz band specifically devoted to vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology. To put that in plainer English, the FCC has already decided that driverless technology will have access to a different part of the internet than the rest of us.The hypothetical “fast lanes” have already been created for self-driving cars and were never going to be subject to net neutrality rules.

(Oh, there it is.)

With the way driverless car technology and the network set aside for V2V communications are classified now, net neutrality (or a lack thereof) shouldn’t have any real effect on how or whether driverless cars work.

And since everyone involved in developing, regulating, and using autonomous car technology has an interest in making sure they can access the level of connectivity they need to work smoothly, it’s likely that government and industry will work together to make it happen.

(Here’s hoping, anyway.)