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,, 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 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.

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