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The Connected Car: Here Tomorrow, If Not Today

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I’m sitting in the back of an Audi A8, posting a story to the Internet using the car’s built-in Wi-Fi connection. I’m cruising the Merritt Parkway, listening to 1920s country music via my Bluetooth-connected iPhone, which is accessing the Amazon Cloud Player. My music is on a server somewhere, but it sounds good on the Cadillac Cue system in my XTS 4. I’m driving on the eve of Nemo, getting regularly warned of impending blizzard conditions with little pings and tugs on my seatbelt.

Amazon Cloud Player is fascinating connected tech, with some speed bumps. (Jim Motavalli photo)All of this happened in 2013, which is shaping up as the year of the Connected Car (as 2012 was the Year of the Electric). The predictions are coming thick and fast. Intel says the connected car is the third-fastest growing technological device after phones and tablets. By 2020, 20 percent of the value of new cars ($600 billion) will be attributed to “connected life,” says Machina Research. GSMA thinks that the market will grow because of telematic mandates from governments (including stolen vehicle tracking) lower prices and a decoupling of apps from phones. "At some point in the future, every car will need to be connected to the outside world through a cellular network," it said.

More than 30 car companies have launched telematic services in Europe, the U.S. and China (a 50-percent growth rate), says SBD. And ABI Research says “the installed base of embedded and hybrid connected car systems is expected to grow from 45 million at the end of 2011 to 210 million by 2016.” Bain and Company envisions connected cars increasing from 45 million to 210 million worldwide by 2016. The BBC notes predictions that every new car will be connected to the web as early as 2014.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, I saw a plethora of self-driving cars, which have to be “connected” or they crash. At the same show, AT&T showed off its own connected car program, and its mobility CEO, Ralph de la Vega, said that he expected 20 million connected cars will hit the road in the next three years.

Among the features we'll see: car doors that will open with biometric sensors (maybe you won’t need an electronic key anymore), and infotainment systems that recognize the driver, summoning the appropriate settings and the right e-mail. Intel and companies like that are slathering over the new markets. Here's their rosy view of the future, via video:



It's great and everything, but will all this connectivity encourage the hackers who used to drool over unprotected PCs? Car and Driver notes, "Currently, there’s nothing to stop anyone with malicious intent and some ­computer-programming skills from taking command of your vehicle. After gaining access, a hacker could control everything from which song plays on the radio to whether the brakes work." And as the connectivity increases, it just gets easier to hack in. Stealing your car by unlocking it remotely is just one of the things even unsophisticated thieves can do.

Another issue, according to Automotive News, is that wider Wi-Fi use "could jam accident-prevention technology that may cost as little as $100 per vehicle and save thousands of lives annually." There's only so much bandwidth, after all.

Concerns like this won't stop the connected car. At CES, both GM and Ford announced they were opening up their platforms to app developers, which should result in the blooming of a thousand new approaches to car connectivity. For instance, iPhones can already access parking services that find vacant spaces, but it would be nice if that could be built into the car. Don Shoup of UCLA points to studies that show the average time spent looking for an urban space is eight minutes, and 30 percent of the cars in the traffic flow are looking for parking.
 
Back seat drivers will get access to the latest TV shows and video conferencing through AT&T Uverse. Why not the front? Well, here we run into the biggest obstacle to connected cars: distracted driving. You can’t watch TV or surf the net and drive at the same time, which explains the plethora of voice command systems on new cars. Apple’s Siri is taking a ride in three Hondas (Accord and two Acuras) and two Chevrolets (Spark and Sonic) this year.

Distracted driving is a very real issue, and it's hard to avoid in today's cars, let alone tomorrow's. There are many options for the car's pilot that take eyes off the road, such as playing with the climate control or complicated infotainment system. We don't need to throw out every aspect of older cars. I'm a big fan of the fast-disappearing volume control knob, for instance. I never had to look at an AM-FM radio. These new technologies also further increase the amount of cognitive distraction the driver experiences, too--no matter how much voice-recognition technology is at work. And, as experts like David Strayer have repeatedly demonstrated, that mental distraction is the leading culprit behind distracted-driving accidents. 

Tesla's 17-inch touchscreen offers full Internet access. (Tesla photo)Automakers are working on passenger-side displays, though that doesn’t seem all that workable to me—unless the screens are angled away, there will be a tendency for the driver to peek. The Tesla Model S, with its 17-inch tablet-like screen, is the only car I’m aware of that actually gives the driver Internet access.

I’ve been sampling the new connected car, and for the most part I like it, though there are speed bumps. I’m fascinated by Amazon Cloud Player, though the system drops out here and there with gaps in 3G service, and I ran into a roadblock trying to load my admittedly huge (94,000 songs) music library onto the cloud. I’ve had mixed results with voice commands, possibly because of the short time I spend with each car—it gets better with familiarization. Bluetooth is a wonder, as is Pandora.

To help manage the distraction problem, USA Today and Kaliki (“the audio newsstand”) are working on in-car news readers (which is kind of like, well, radio). Using Glympse, you’re able to share your location in real time with friends. A little box pops up on your friend’s screen, showing your picture, your speed, and the approximate time you’ll reach a rendezvous. It could backfire if you’re in the wrong place at the right time.

I got a taste of what the connected car can do when my wife and I were driving to Washington, D.C. on a particularly rainy evening. We were in New Brunswick, New Jersey when we got hungry, and the N.J. Turnpike rest area fare didn’t appeal. Yelp to the rescue. It gave me restaurants ranked as to distance from my current location, and though it looked like we were in a food desert, it promptly found both Indian and awesomely authentic Mexican (our choice) within a mile. The directions worked flawlessly. In the near future, I’d expect 3D views of the kitchen and menu-connected aromas.

Ford's electric car app is data-rich. (Ford photo)During my stay in electric cars, I’ve been able to use phone apps to find and get directed to charging stations, and learn if they’re in use, too (though freeloading gas cars will throw off the sensors, because they’re occupying the space but not actually charging). I can also use that phone to check on my charging status.

All this stuff the car can do now, but I can think of a few things I’d like it to do:
  • Read my e-mail to me and take flawless dictation for replies--when I'm parked. (Car Talk's distracted driving blogger, David Strayer, is quick to point out that it's the cognitive distraction that causes accidents. Do you want the driver speeding past you mentally rewriting an e-mail to an angry co-worker?)
  • Park automatically as I head into a late appointment..
  • Anticipate congestion and get me around it seamlessly.
The good news is that all of those things are coming sooner rather than later, and none of it is outside our current tech abilities. At CES, in fact, Audi showed a car parking itself, and being retrieved via cell phone, too. We’re talking about a brave new world just around the corner. No longer will cars be little islands of isolation.
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