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Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better Drivers If They Can Chat with Each Other?

Ambitious trials of autonomous cars between London and Oxford could inspire more companies to freely share data between vehicles.

On the roads between Oxford and London in the U.K., a small group of autonomous cars will soon be chattering amongst themselves as they find their way between the cities. The hope is that sharing data in real time can make them better, safer drivers.

Oxbotica, a spinout company from the University of Oxford, has announced that it’s leading a new set of autonomous vehicle tests on the British roads. It will use six vehicles, each equipped with its Selenium software—a bolt-on system that enables most modern vehicles to be fitted with sensors and turned into an autonomous vehicle.

The company hopes that by 2019 the cars will be operating at level four autonomy—which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as a vehicle “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” In other words: they will drive themselves, no human required.

For now, the vehicles will be occupied by safety drivers who can take over if anything goes wrong, much like the cars that Uber and Google spinout Waymo are currently testing. But it's an ambitious timeline for getting cars to handle a route that includes inner-city and highway driving without human assistance.

Perhaps even more interesting is that Oxbotica plans to have its vehicles communicate with each other during the tests.

Car-to-car communication, which was one of our 10 breakthrough technologies of 2015, is relatively easy to implement on autonomous cars that are already packed with sensors and computing hardware. Some manufacturers, like BMW and Audi, do plan for their cars to communicate with each other and even talk to street furniture, like traffic lights. But, as a recent Guardian article pointed out, others, like Waymo and Uber, rarely discuss the topic, instead preferring to suggest that their cars are genuinely independent.

To be sure, the cars being developed by Waymo do share their learning with each other to some extent, but not while they're on the road. Partly there's a security consideration: Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, has said that its cars “communicate with the outside world only when they need to, so there isn’t a continuous line that’s able to be hacked, going into the car.”  But Uber and Waymo are also nervous about the prospect of openly sharing data, for fear of giving away a competitive advantage.

While Oxbotica's cars can also navigate the roads by themselves, the company clearly sees a benefit in working out how best to share data between vehicles. Connected driverless cars could, for instance, alert other vehicles to sudden changes in road conditions, merge lanes intelligently, approach junctions at an appropriate speed, or even work together to dynamically adjust insurance prices. “What’s interesting," explained Paul Newman, a cofounder of Oxbotica, in a statement,  “is what data the vehicles share with one another, when, and why.”

For now, of course, Oxbotica's experiments are self-contained—not least because there aren't many other autonomous cars on the roads in the U.K. But by putting the notion of car-to-car communication front-and-center during its testing, the results could be a landmark moment for demonstrating whether connected self-driving cars work better than those going it alone.. 

(Read more: “Oxbotica’s New Autonomous Vehicle Software Learns As It Goes,” “Why Some Autonomous Cars Are Going to Avoid the Internet,” “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2015: Car-to-Car Communication”)

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