Car tech: The connected car arrives

Welcome to the era of cars that connect to the Internet, to each other and to the public infrastructure

Automobile technology has become so advanced that today's cars are essentially computers with wheels. So why aren't we using them to surf the Web, communicate with other cars or order food at nearby restaurants?

We're well on our way. Current models of several cars, including the Ford Edge, the Audi A6 and the Lincoln MKX, can all connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi or 3G networks. These connections bring streaming audio and video, Twitter feeds, spoken text messages and current traffic information into the vehicle.

And that's just the beginning. In the near future, you'll be able to browse the Web and get Facebook updates on your in-car navigation screen. And in coming years, wireless standards such as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) will help cars connect to one another and to the road infrastructure, communicating real-time road conditions and other helpful information.

There are still numerous technical, legal and privacy issues to be worked out, not to mention major concerns over distracted driving and safety. But like it or not, the day of the connected car is dawning.

Bringing the Internet into the car

Ford is among the automakers leading the connected-car charge. Take, for instance, the Ford Edge. The 2011 and 2012 models of the souped-up crossover let you create your own in-car hotspot: Just plug your own mobile broadband modem or smartphone into one of the two USB ports, then share the connection with all your passengers over Wi-Fi.

And the company's Sync platform, built by Microsoft, provides a range of connected features including voice-controlled navigation with turn-by-turn directions, 4-1-1 business search and personalized traffic alerts. You can also plug in a music player via USB or pair a phone to the car via Bluetooth, then use voice commands to play music over the car's stereo system, make a call or have your text messages read aloud to you -- no headset required.

The Edge and other vehicles, such as the Lincoln MKX, have built-in touch displays that work much like a tablet or smartphone. Now used primarily for navigation and in-car controls (such as playing the radio), such displays will offer Web browsing in the next few years in many makes and models, according to George Peterson, the president of Detroit-based market research and consulting firm AutoPacific.

The Edge can already connect to Wi-Fi hotspots, and a Web browser will be available on its 8.3-inch navigation screen in the next few months, according to Ford spokesperson Alan Hall, who declined to be more specific about timing. The browser will be operational only while the vehicle is parked, he says. The idea is that when you park anywhere near Wi-Fi, you'll be able to tap into the Web.

In the next few years, almost all new cars will offer built-in browsing and other Net-connected apps, says Peterson. Meanwhile, he says, Ford's strategy is to use smartphones as the primary interface. About a dozen Ford cars, SUVs and trucks now support the company's Sync AppLink technology, which lets you control certain Android, iOS or BlackBerry apps using voice commands or, in some models, the touch panel or buttons on the steering wheel.

Current AppLink-enabled apps include Pandora streaming music, Stitcher Internet radio, the iHeartRadio music player and OpenBeak, a Twitter app. All four have been optimized for voice control, and OpenBeak can read tweets aloud so your eyes stay on the road.

In October 2010, the company began releasing its software development kit to other developers interested in creating AppLink-enabled apps, but according to Doug VanDagens, director of connected services for Ford, the company doesn't make its API available to just any developer who wants to make apps for Ford cars.

"We pick high-volume trusted partners [whose products], we believe, are safe for use in the car -- so no gaming, no highly graphic-intensive things. There's all kinds of people who want to provide functionality in the car that we're just not interested in -- it's not safe," he says. (More on distracted driving concerns later in the story.)

Several other automakers have followed Ford's lead, offering voice-enabled smartphone app integration with select 2012 models. Examples include Buick IntelliLink, BMW ConnectedDrive, Cadillac Cue, Chevrolet MyLink, Mini Connected and Toyota Entune. Toyota's Entune service, available with the 2012 Prius V, Camry and Tacoma, currently offers the most apps, with Bing search, iHeartRadio, Movietickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora and various data services including stock price updates, traffic reports and weather forecasts.

Another highly connected vehicle is the Audi A8. Chuhee Lee, a senior staff engineer with VW/Audi, says the A8 supports Google Earth so you can "pre-visualize" your travel plans. For example, if you type in an address on the in-car navigation system, the car connects to the Web over 3G and shows you a Google Earth rendering for that destination, including buildings, roadways and other points of interest.

The A8 also uses the photo-sharing site Panoramio to help you plan a travel route. For example, if you're planning a trip to San Francisco, you'll see Panoramio thumbnails of, say, the Golden Gate Bridge on the in-car nav screen. You can then tap on the touchscreen on a thumbnail for a full-screen view. The service works by encoding images with geolocation data; the A8 feeds the encoded images to your local navigation system.

New connectivity scenarios

In-car wireless connections will open up a world of opportunity, says K. Venkatesh Prasad, the group and technical leader of Infotronics Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford. For example, you might hear a recipe on the radio in your car, speak a few commands to look up the recipe on the Internet, and transmit the Web page to your own email address so that it's waiting for you on your PC when you get home.

This type of app might initially run on a smartphone, Prasad explains, but eventually cloud-based applications will run on your car in the same way they do on your computer or your smartphone today, as demonstrated by the recently unveiled Ford Evos concept car. The information that appears on the car's touchscreen is gathered and processed remotely by cloud apps.

A cloud app might, for example, connect to a local grocer with instructions about what items you need to make that recipe you've just saved, how to package them, and even when you're likely to arrive at the store to pick them up based on your current location. And when you do pick up your groceries, an e-wallet app could communicate your payment info to the grocer -- all with minimal input from you.

Just as years ago Amazon tweaked the book-buying experience to work online, giving e-commerce a tremendous kick-start, Prasad says, cloud-based apps need to be tuned for driving. Apps that are customized for hands-free driving, for example, could reduce distraction issues while helping people remain productive while they're on the road. "We need to get the Internet tuned to road speed," he adds.

OnStar, General Motors' in-car telematics unit, is also developing some interesting car-connection options. Many GM cars are equipped with OnStar's Stolen Vehicle Slowdown technology, which gives law enforcement officers the ability to remotely stop a vehicle that's been reported stolen. The police send the vehicle information number (VIN) to OnStar, which then sends a wireless signal to the car that causes the accelerator to stop working. (The steering, brakes and electronics in the car continue to work.)

A future scenario could involve taking control of a stolen car's steering to guide it to the side of the road, says Nick Pudar, a business development vice president at OnStar.

The companies are also working on giving GM owners remote access to the car's data, Pudar says. You might use your computer or smartphone to look up your miles-per-gallon rating over specific routes over a period of time, and perhaps adjust your plans for maximum MPG. OnStar might also suggest traffic routes based on your driving habits. (OnStar's data tracking has, however, raised some privacy concerns.)

Some information about routes, MPG and traffic is already available to Chevy Volt drivers through the MyVolt.com portal. You can also connect to electric cars such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf via a smartphone app even when you are nowhere near the vehicle.

For example, with the Nissan Carwings system, you can tap in remotely to check on the state of the battery charge or even "recondition" the car to set the temperature level. Toyota has plans for similar apps for its upcoming electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

These innovations will pave the way for even more remote access, such as the ability to have your car plan a travel route before you even slide into the driver's seat, says AutoPacific's Peterson.

Related: Car tech: Electric vehicles get an IT assist

Connecting to other cars

The next major leap will come when cars can communicate directly with one another. Initially, most car-to-car communication technologies will be aimed at curbing the number of accidents and resulting injuries and deaths in cars, according to Paul Laurenza, managing partner in the Washington office of the law firm Dykema, who works indirectly with the Department of Transportation (through other agencies) on automotive legal issues. The DOT estimates that more than 80% of crashes could be prevented by using vehicle-to-vehicle safety measures, he says.

For example, a vehicle might sense an icy road, then transmit that information to other cars nearby. Or a car whose driver is attempting to pass a truck could get a signal from an approaching car that's over a hill or around a curve, and move back behind the truck until it's safe to pass.

In another scenario, a vehicle about to sideswipe another car could communicate with the car in its path, using a complex algorithm that accounts for speed, proximity and even the percentage chance for collision. The cars would then adjust automatically to prevent a crash -- one car could swerve while the other one slows down, or both cars could swerve at the same time -- communicating all the while so each car knows what the other is doing.

A similar technology that's already in place in cars like the BMW 5 Series is designed to prepare the brakes for fast stopping and to enhance traction control and stability, says AutoPacific's Peterson, but it is based on sensors in the car, not a connection to other cars. The next step is to get cars with such sensors to transmit the data to each other -- something BMW, Daimler and other carmakers are beginning to test in Europe.

In the U.S., these car-to-car safety signals will depend on the emerging DSRC standard, a dedicated wireless spectrum that runs in the 5.9GHz band and is closed off from the Internet. Peterson says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pushing automakers to equip future vehicles with transponders that use DSRC to communicate their current status and road conditions to other cars.

The NHTSA is beginning to work with automotive component makers such as Delphi and Johnson Controls to encourage the development of such transponders, according to Peterson. However, he notes that the task is made more difficult by the fact that the various wireless standards for DSRC are still under development by auto manufacturers working with federal and state government agencies. (More on that later in the story.)

VW's Lee provides another interesting scenario for interconnectedness between cars: The company is conducting ongoing research on technology that could enable cars to transmit route information to one another in real time. With such a system, a driver might send out his travel route to a cloud-based service for owners of supported VW cars. Friends who tap into the service could see where the driver is heading and adjust their own routes to meet him.

This crowdsourcing for travel might even get you discounts at restaurants, gas stations and hotels. If, for example, business owners in a certain town knew a group of travelers would be arriving during a slow sales period or late at night, they might be willing to offer deals.

"In a fully connected scenario, it is not just that your car is connected [to the Internet], but your car is connected to other cars, to your mobile phone, and to your home computer," says Lee. "Your car becomes an assistant and a companion to your digital life."

Connecting to the infrastructure

The next step after vehicle-to-vehicle transmissions is for cars to connect to sensors on or near the road, to stoplights at intersections, and even to facilities such as parking lots to help you find a parking spot at the mall. Some of this communication already occurs -- for instance, some emergency vehicles can communicate with stoplights to make sure the lights have turned green or turn on a blinking red light for cross traffic.

As with car-to-car communications, many of the car-to-infrastructure connections will help make driving safer and will use the DSRC spectrum, says Mikael Gustavsson, the Connectivity Hub Leader at Volvo in charge of in-car connections. For example, your car could tap into the DSRC network and let you know what's up around the next block -- say, that there is an accident and that you should slow down or find an alternate route.

These infrastructure signals could theoretically work in conjunction with sensors that are already in cars. Today, many of the most advanced cars -- such as the Volvo S60, the Audi A8, the Infiniti M37X and the Ford Edge -- have complex sensor networks that can scan in front of the car, control brakes and steering, and even nudge the vehicle back into a lane automatically. If communications capabilities were added to those sensors, a vehicle that senses an icy road might transmit that information not only to nearby cars, but also to a roadside terminal (say, attached to a stop sign) and even beyond that to several other endpoints that in turn transmit the warning to other drivers.

Phil Ames, a senior staff engineer at Intel who works on embedded wireless communications, envisions a future in which car and infrastructure sensors track and communicate everything that's going on, including whether the driver is paying attention. So, for instance, a road sign might send out a wireless signal warning about the prevalence of deer in the area. The car's sensors would receive the signal and go on high alert for a deer jumping out in front of the car, simultaneously preparing the car for sudden braking and audibly warning the driver of the danger.

Related: Car tech: Building the zero-fatality car

But car-to-infrastructure communications won't necessarily stop with roadside signs and sensors. In the next few years, cars will be capable of connecting in a much more robust way to their surroundings, including local businesses. Ford's Prasad calls this the "last inch" problem, which has to do with the location-based information fed to a driver and how that information is displayed. It's one thing to have the wireless connections available, but it's another to use the connections to make driving easier and more worthwhile.

"It is not so much about wireless in the car but how cars are part of the broader physical infrastructure," says Prasad. "The infrastructure looks at who is coming to town and what services could be offered. The car will look for restaurants, places to room for the night, or a movie theater."

Volvo's Gustavsson says the company is working with mobile telecommunications vendor Ericsson on a possible scenario where cars can transmit diagnostic data and other information about a vehicle's health to service stations in certain urban areas. The idea is that you would pay a monthly fee to a repair shop or gas station to constantly monitor your vehicle. You would get notices about real-time service needs or even, say, an alert that you should buy gas now because the next station is too far away.

Some of these features are already available. OnStar, for example, can monitor your vehicle and let you know that you need an oil change or that your tires are wearing down. A similar service, Mercedes mbrace, also provides real-time remote monitoring and can even send a tow truck if you're stalled at the side of the road. What Gustavsson is describing is more localized: the local repair shop monitoring your vehicle within a specified range.

Safety and integration challenges

The connected car will open up new money-making opportunities for car makers and their partners -- including developers of in-car apps and makers of dashboard interface systems, as well as hotels, gas stations and other businesses that cater to travelers. Even the new safety features will boost revenues from car sales, since drivers will pay extra for vehicles that protect them from crashes. Peterson notes that according to AutoPacific's driver surveys, roughly one-third of people who buy Ford cars today do so because of the technical features such as Internet connectivity.

However, as with any wireless connection, there are also concerns about connected car safety and security. Researchers have proven that Bluetooth, cellular networks and other entry points into your car's systems are vulnerable to determined hackers. There's also the more basic problem of distracted driving -- as drivers deal with more and more onscreen data and feeds, will they be less aware of, and slower to respond to, what's happening outside their cars?

According to the NHTSA, 20% of the 1.5 million crashes that resulted in injury in the U.S. in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving, which the government defines as "any nondriving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing." In addition to taking your eyes off the road or hands off the wheel, this includes "taking your mind off what you're doing." Not surprisingly, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has spoken out against infotainment devices in cars, saying they contribute to distracted driving.

Another hurdle is integration. Any IT professional who has deployed a complex ERP system or has tried to link communications tools from different vendors knows that integration is one of computing's greatest challenges. When the computer has four wheels and speeds along at 70 mph, the challenges are even greater.

So how will car companies integrate all of the technologies inside a car and then make sure they connect to systems in other cars and along the roadways? And how will they do that in a way that keeps drivers and other vehicles safe? "That question is way above my pay grade," jokes Peterson. "There are very smart engineers working on this, and they decide what is possible and what they can't even allow at higher speeds."

The Department of Transportation makes suggestions about the safety of in-car IT systems, but manufacturers aren't required to follow them, according to Ford's Hall. Nevertheless, it is in the automakers' best interests to prevent distracted-driving accidents. In addition to carefully vetting the apps it allows to run in its vehicles, "Ford takes proactive steps to limit distractions while driving, including locking our visual content such as sports scores, as well as limiting navigation destination entry to just voice -- no typing on the screen," says Hall.

But having manufacturers police themselves on safety has sometimes led to problems. Peterson cites BMW's early-2000s iDrive system for controlling the car's climate, audio, navigation and more as an example of too-complicated technology that drew drivers' attention away from the road. "Designed by engineers for engineers, the system was practically impossible to decipher," he says, adding that it's up to manufacturers and designers to "clearly understand what the distractions are and make sure their vehicles minimize the distraction. The key is ease of use."

As for data security and integration, the DSRC network is being designed with both issues in mind. The DOT's plan is to have all vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications transmitted over the closed network, which will keep cars' data sequestered from the Internet and provide a single communications platform for car makers to work with. According to attorney Laurenza, recent DOT policy papers point to a DSRC certification process for all sensors and wireless connections in a car.

However, the DSRC network is still a work in progress. Part of the challenge, according to Peterson, is getting all of the car companies to agree on standard protocols, not to mention exactly what to communicate over the network. No car companies have yet announced vehicles that will work with DSRC, but they say they're making progress.

"We are actively developing the technology and working with our government and automaker partners globally to help deliver it as quickly and affordably possible," says Ford spokesperson Wes Sherwood.

GM is taking a somewhat different approach. Rather than building the technology into the car itself, the company is developing portable devices and smartphone apps that make use of DSRC. The company, which recently demonstrated such a device, says this approach will make DSRC communications available to a greater range of drivers.

But the integration woes don't end with the communications network. Another headache has to do with protecting proprietary information, such as the data gathered by a car's sensors. As Volvo's Gustavsson notes, it's one thing to work with a third party when it comes to interactive maps or streaming Twitter feeds, but something else entirely when a partner's app taps into, say, the actual brake sensor on a car.

Due to companies' concerns about protecting trade secrets, it's likely that the automakers themselves will develop the various endpoint systems and related encryption to make sure no one can steal sensor data, Gustavsson says.

That might make integration more difficult, but, as VW's Lee explains, we're talking about a car with very complex internal systems moving at highway speeds, so any outside connection to check on diagnostics or to transmit other sensor data from the car has to be thoroughly verified.

To keep hackers from interfering, car makers will use strong encryption and send the encrypted data over the closed DSRC band, says Gustavsson.

Other concerns: Liability, privacy and more

Attorney Laurenza points out that the new technology might raise concerns about liability. Citing his earlier example about cars communicating with one another to avoid collisions, he wonders who would be liable if a car transmitted faulty information to another car and someone was killed as a result. For example, a car might send the wrong signal, or a sensor on the road could communicate the wrong information, or data might become corrupted during transmission.

Similarly, there are questions about who owns the data that's collected and transmitted by cars, Laurenza says. And that concern is likely to grow if the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 is passed. This proposed legislation would require that "black box" recorders similar to those in airplanes be included in all new vehicles by 2015.

And the black box itself is changing: Instead of just storing data, newer versions will use wireless signals such as DSRC to communicate data about the car's state in real time to the black box vendor, which will store the data for later use.

"There could be a question, if a legal issue arose, about who owns the data that goes out over the network," says Laurenza. "That is an issue the DOT is looking at. There are systems linked to the car manufacturers as well, and who gains access depends on how the data is transmitted."

Insurance companies, for example, might be very interested in knowing where and when their customers drive, how fast, how many close calls they have, and so on. "An insurance company might set more accurate premiums based on the technology in the car," he says.

This raises another concern: privacy. Do you really want your car to transmit every move you make?

Laurenza says that the privacy issues are not as critical as other legal concerns, because the data transmitted is anonymized by the automaker and does not relate directly to the individual driver. But Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), among others, have expressed doubt over the effectiveness of data anonymization technology, citing "a broad body of research showing that it is extraordinarily difficult to successfully anonymize highly personal data like location."

The senators were responding to a recent OnStar announcement in which the company said it had changed its policy and planned continue to track data from cars -- including location, odometer readings, vehicle diagnostics and more -- even after customers had stopped using the OnStar service, and that it would sell anonymized data to third parties. It set up the policy on an opt-out basis, meaning former customers would have to tell OnStar that they did not want to be tracked.

Under severe criticism from customers and lawmakers, and facing a possible FTC probe, the company reversed course and made the policy an opt-in option, meaning former customers could request such tracking from OnStar if they so desired. (The company reserves the right to sell anonymized data from customers who opt in.)

The OnStar privacy flap shows that data privacy is very much on consumers' minds, whether car makers and service providers like it or not.

Ready or not...

Despite all the legal, technical, security and privacy issues that have yet to be worked out, the connected car is already here. Wi-Fi and 3G connections are making it possible to feed movies and music to cars, send real-time traffic and weather data, and track location and diagnostic information.

In the coming years, such connections will become available in more and more vehicles, providing more information and perhaps even changing the way we drive. As Peterson suggests, this opens up a new world of possibilities, but it also means that the car companies will have to work with one another and with government agencies to make the connected car truly useful, safe, and not too intrusive.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He has written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow him on Twitter (@jmbrandonbb.

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