The Connected Car is Ready to Hit the Road
The Highway and Information Superhighway are about to merge
Driving offers many benefits beyond just getting from Point A to Point B. Among them is the chance to quell the constant noise of modern life while focusing on what matters most to us. Whether on a daily commute or a long trip, time behind the wheel can be a rare opportunity to listen to music uninterrupted, catch up on news, access information or just quietly enjoy the drive. And it can be an almost therapeutic escape from the constant 24/7 connectivity that is part of modern life.
The car is generally an Internet-free zone, which can be either heaven or hell, depending on your perspective. But that’s about to change. If events at the recent Consumer Electronics Show are any indication, the age of the connected car is just around the bend. At the annual gadget extravaganza in Las Vegas, carmakers, automotive suppliers and technology providers revealed alliances designed to make the connected car a reality.
With this transformation we will not only get access to the information and services we’ve come to expect from our computers, smartphones and tablets, but also innovations that could make driving safer and easier. Moments after a car skids on a patch of black ice, for example, connected vehicles behind it could be warned. Or if the traffic slows two miles ahead because of an accident you could be instantly alerted, along with follow-up reports on real-time traffic flow. Connectivity for the car will also ensure up-to-date automotive infotainment and technology operating systems by automatically downloading the latest software.
A Major Shift
Connected car technology began with telematics systems such as OnStar, which use an embedded cellular modem to communicate with drivers to offer safety and convenience services. Now automakers are simultaneously seeking to enlarge these in-car data pipelines with faster and more reliable broadband 4G networks while also leveraging a driver’s smartphone to download content.
“There’s been a bit of a Ground Hog’s Day phenomenon, with the automotive industry always on the verge of becoming connected,” remarked Roger Lanctot, an automotive-technology analyst with Strategy Analytics. “But now BMW and Mercedes-Benz’s announcements of enhanced embedded plans for 2012 and a proliferation of enhanced smartphone-based solutions signal a major shift forward in the industry.”
Audi also announced at CES that it intends to be the first automaker to offer 4G connectivity in the car. For the second year in a row at CES, General Motors, via its OnStar division, partnered with Verizon to showcase applications using the wireless carrier’s 4G LTE connectivity. GM had a Chevy Volt on hand at this year’s CES to demonstrate how 4G could be used to stream video content from YouTube and Netflix for backseat passengers, connect to Internet gaming, make Skype video calls and access other cloud-based content.
Connecting with Consumers
Most drivers don’t care about the technology used to deliver content in the car; they just want it to not add significantly to the cost of the car, be easy to use, and work with the devices they already own. “What we saw at CES was that seamless connectivity is growing rapidly,” said Jim Buczkowski, director of electronics and electrical system for Ford Research and Innovation. “Interchanging information between phones, tablets and the cloud is starting to really see some traction. Seamless connectivity creates differentiating experiences that we want for our customers.”
Beyond connectivity – which drivers can simply get from their smartphones – how they pay for the connection, as well as how well a vehicle’s user interface and features work, will be make-or-break factors for automakers. “The key will be to give customers choice of streaming via embedded systems or bringing in their own devices to access content and information,” noted Nick Pudar, vice president of business development for OnStar. “We need to listen to our customers to develop the features they want by offering connections to our platforms and make it as easy to use – and as least distracting – as possible.”
Connection Keeps Cars Current -- Automatically
Another quandary for automakers is how to stay current with consumer electronics. A technology lag time has long been the Achilles heel for OEMs since vehicle production cycles are measured in years, whereas in consumer electronics it’s measured in months. The connected car could also solve this problem.
A big advance on this came from a small section of the Research in Motion (RIM) booth at CES occupied by its subsidiary QNX. In an area just large enough to fit a Porsche Carrera demonstration vehicle, QNX showed its new Car 2 application platform. The significance of this announcement is that QNX provides the back-end technology for many advanced automotive infotainment systems, and Car 2 could be easily customized and quickly adopted by automakers. More importantly, because the Car 2 platform is HTML5 based, it will allow automakers to easily update a vehicle’s infotainment software and add new applications – as is the norm for PCs, smartphones and tablets.
In a similar development at CES, Mercedes-Benz debuted its mbrace2 system. The automaker’s first-generation mbrace system provided many telematics safety and convenience staples: automatic crash notification, emergency assistance, door unlocking and more. The mbrace2 system adds slick features such as Facebook status updates and Google Streetview for navigation.
But Hughes Telematics, which supplies the mbrace technology backbone, said it has the capability to update the system’s software over the air. This not only allows the system to stay current, but also makes it seamless for car owners. In most cases, owners wouldn’t have to do a thing to update the infotainment system in their vehicles – except maybe choose the apps they want to download.
Just Enjoy the Drive
While fully cloud-connected cars probably won’t appear on the road and in dealerships in large numbers this year, a perfect storm of technology innovation came together at the Las Vegas Convention Center in early January to make it an imminent reality. “At this CES, six out of the 10 major OEMs had a presence there,” said OnStar’s Nick Pudar. “As consumers get more and more connected, the car is turning in to one of the key hubs in their universe of connected devices.”
Roger Lanctot of Strategy Analytics pointed out that CES was the scene for more automotive connectivity initiatives and innovations than ever. “And behind the scenes, five OEMs are racing to be the first to market with embedded LTE connectivity,” he added. “This year should be a fun ride.”
Like the early days of the Internet, we can’t even imagine all the future benefits of the connected car. But there is one we can predict with certainty: You’ll still be able to turn off the connection, be alone with your thoughts and just enjoy a quiet drive.