SMARTPHONES ON WHEELS
The Connected Car
The way cars are made, bought and driven is changing with mobile communications. This paves the way to a driverless future
IN A generation from now, your journey home may go a bit like this. As you leave your office, an empty car rolls up. Perhaps you summoned it, or maybe this is a regular pickup. On the way home you listen to your favourite music, watch a television show or catch up with the news. You barely notice as the car slows down or speeds up to avoid other vehicles, except for when it pulls aside to let an ambulance through. Some of the other cars have drivers using a steering wheel, but many of them, like yours, have no wheel at all.
Despite that hold-up your journey is much faster, even though there are more cars on the road than in 2014. When you arrive home, the car heads off to its next client, or to park somewhere and wait for a call. You don’t know or care. After all, it’s not your vehicle: you summon a car only when you need one.
Tantalising glimpses of this future are common today, most notably in Google’s bubble-shaped prototype of an autonomous car. The internet giant has been running Toyotas and other models adapted for driverless travel up and down Highway 101 in Silicon Valley for a couple of years now, using on-board sensors to keep the vehicles on the straight and narrow.
Other experiments use a different approach to ensure safe journeys. Some 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have had wireless internet connections fitted to their cars. These are used to feed information to and from other vehicles and the transport infrastructure. The system will, for instance, warn a driver about to overtake a car if there is a chance of a collision with an oncoming vehicle, or change a traffic light to green if safe to do so. The number of vehicles involved in the project, run by the University of Michigan and largely funded by America’s Department of Transportation, could triple over the next few years.
What is happening in Michigan is part of a much broader trend: the rise of the “connected” car. This is the coming together of communications technologies, information systems and safety devices to provide vehicles with an increasing level of sophistication and automation. It is a process that will change not just how cars are used but also the relationship between a car and its driver. This, in turn, will affect the way vehicles are made and sold. Eventually, it is the connected car that may deliver a driverless future.
The kit that enables this is starting to appear in new vehicles. Some of the most advanced driver aids can be specified in certain Mercedes-Benz models. These cars are already capable of doing a fair bit of autonomous driving. For instance, the German company’s new “Intelligent Drive” package has a feature which, in congested traffic moving at less than 60kph (37mph), allows the driver to let the car steer, brake and accelerate by itself. The system uses a combination of ultrasonic and radar sensors along with cameras that monitor all around the vehicle. Because Mercedes drivers like to be comfortable, it will even automatically adjust the suspension before the car hits a pothole in the road.
Many features in modern cars are becoming accessible to smartphones that connect to the vehicle. A smartphone app allows the driver of an electric BMW i3, for example, to check the battery capacity of his vehicle while it is being topped up at a recharging station. Audi, part of the Volkswagen group, is working on a system which would allow a driver to get out of the car and use his smartphone to instruct the vehicle to park itself.
Connected cars are a marriage of two types of mobile technology: the mechanical sort, which revolutionised transport in the 20th century, and the electronic variety, which has transformed telecoms in the 21st. A recent report by analysts at Citigroup, a bank, used data from IHS, a research firm, to divide the ways that mobile telecoms are influencing motoring into three useful groups.
The car app
The first bunch is made up of services and applications delivered via mobile networks to a car—either to systems that are part of the vehicle or to devices, such as smartphones or tablets, carried by the driver or passengers and connected to the car wirelessly or with a cable. The most obvious example are “infotainment” systems, which stream music, video, satellite navigation and traffic information. The second consists of services based on data supplied from the car, such as advance warning that a part needs to be replaced. And the third category brings together multiple vehicles, communicating with each other and with smart infrastructure, from roadside sensors to traffic signals and remote data centres, to make traffic flow more smoothly and safely.
Broadly speaking, services in the first group are the most widespread already. “The cards in infotainment have been dealt,” says Andreas Mai of Cisco, a network-equipment giant. People already have their favourite services, like iTunes, Spotify or TripAdvisor, on their smartphones. Surveys, though, suggest that car buyers place a higher value on services that make travelling safer, save them time or money, or alert them to problems with their vehicle. These services lie mainly though not wholly in the second and third groups. But widespread availability may take several years.
The number of cars with some sort of networking ability today is small, perhaps only 8% of the global total, according to McKinsey, a consulting firm. But by 2020 around a quarter of all cars, mainly the more expensive sort, will be online. The build-up will be relatively slow because many old cars stay on the road for a decade or so. But for new cars things are changing rapidly. BMW has been embedding SIM cards for mobile connectivity in all its new cars since April. By 2020, around 90% of all manufacturers’ new models are likely to have them, according to Machina Research, another consulting firm. The market then starts to look particularly juicy. A recent report by GSMA, the mobile operators’ trade body, says revenues from the sale of in-vehicle services, hardware and the provision of connectivity itself will treble over five years to reach $39 billion by 2018. Machina reckons it could rise to a staggering $422 billion by 2022, most of it coming from connected services to and from vehicles.
Car buyers are expected to be keen on connected services once they get to know about them and see them in action. This much is clear from the limited offerings already available. The ability for the car itself to call the emergency services automatically in the event of an accident is reckoned by many drivers to be a valuable feature of GM’s OnStar, a connected safety and navigation system which in effect enables a vehicle to function as a phone. A separate app also allows OnStar users to lock and unlock the car’s doors remotely, start the engine and find the vehicle on a map if the driver forgets where he parked it. GM aims to have the service available in nearly all its cars worldwide by 2015.
But regulators are also forcing the pace. The European Union wants a system that automatically calls for help in the event of a crash to be fitted to all new vehicles by 2015. Russia has similar plans and Brazilian cars will need to be fitted with trackers as a way to reduce theft. Encouraged by the Ann Arbor test, in February America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would begin working on a regulation to require vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication to be fitted in all new cars.
On the digital dashboard
Different applications require different technologies. A search for a parking space would probably go over public mobile networks from an app, whether on the driver’s smartphone or one running on a digital dashboard. For safety features, such as preventing a car from pulling out in front of another, V2V communication is essential, says Kurt Sievers of NXP, a semiconductor company. Public networks will be too slow for this and may lack the capacity. His company is making systems with dual antennae to cope with reception difficulties, because radio waves from moving vehicles tend to bounce off buildings and other surfaces. Authentication of signals matters too, to prevent cars taking unnecessary avoiding action.
With increased connectivity between cars, driver aids will become much more sophisticated. A connected car would, for instance, receive not just information about a hazard detected by its own sensors, but also alerts from a vehicle farther along the road or around a blind corner.
Connectivity can also help provide more real-time information about traffic hold-ups, beyond that already provided by satellite-navigation devices. The addition of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication (V2I) takes things further still. Whereas the connected cars in Ann Arbor can change the timing of traffic lights, a combination of V2V, V2I and automated driving could do away with traffic lights completely. Cars could be co-ordinated so that they avoid one another at road crossings. Not having to stop at road crossings would reduce congestion.
The sensors in vehicles that check things like tyre and oil pressures, as well as brakes and engine performance, will also have a role. Pavan Mathew of Telefónica, a mobile-network operator, points out that many drivers dread the moment when a dashboard warning light flicks on. Remote monitoring and messaging can swiftly send a note to the driver about the extent of the problem.
Vehicles’ diagnostic systems could also pick up faults before they are manifested as black smoke pouring from an exhaust pipe or a horrible grinding noise from the engine. Cars could then be brought in for repair before trivial problems develop into big ones. Following the lead of Tesla, a Californian maker of electric cars, more faults might one day be fixed remotely over the internet by a software upgrade.
Indeed, checking on cars remotely has plenty of other possibilities that may reduce (or worsen) stress levels. Online services will allow, for instance, closer monitoring of the driving behaviour of teenagers beyond the basic warnings of aggressive braking or exceeding speed limits that the “black boxes” supplied by some insurance companies presently provide. And not just younger drivers. Insurers are likely to offer any driver a lower premium if technological monitoring of his driving habits shows he is being careful.
Exactly who will deliver all these new motoring services is far from clear. It is by no means certain that it will be traditional carmakers, even though they are all busily developing, making and marketing increasingly connected vehicles. In the past consumers have expected the new technologies that appear in cars quickly to become standard features for which they pay little if anything extra. Electric windows, anti-lock brakes and power steering are now almost universal.
The connected car, however, has created powerful new competitors in the motor industry’s traditional supply chain. And some of those new competitors are keen to win themselves a big slice of the action. These are mobile-telecoms operators, makers of networking gear, developers of V2V and V2I technologies, producers of consumer hardware and systems, software firms and creators of mobile apps.
Cars will become bundles of different technologies, not only of devices but also of consumer brands, all vying for the driver’s attention in a sometimes uneasy alliance with carmakers. Apple and Google are locked in competition for control of the digital dashboard. In response to CarPlay, a vehicle-infotainment system developed by Apple, Google in June launched a rival called Android Auto.
Mobile-phone operators see the connected car as yet another device to be hooked up to their networks. In America, AT&T is letting drivers of GM cars add their vehicles to their data plans, alongside their smartphones and tablets, for $10 a month. In future, which mobile network you use may affect your choice of car. In a recent poll Nielsen, a market-research firm, found that half of Americans who owned cars made since 2009 would be less likely to buy a new car if it had a different data plan from their smartphone.
Not everyone trying to get in on the act will be visible to the driver. All the data going to and from cars and infrastructure will have to be transmitted and processed. That adds to demand for chips, network equipment and data centres. Cisco, for example, envisages a lot of processing taking place not in the “cloud” of central data centres but more speedily and conveniently within a “fog” of intelligent networks.
Fiat Chrysler’s boss, Sergio Marchionne, is worried that it will cost his company money to “provide a venue to host other people’s parties”
Carmakers know they will have to share the benefits of the connected car. Some seem gloomy about their prospects of getting any of them at all. Fiat Chrysler’s boss, Sergio Marchionne, is worried that it will cost his company money to “provide a venue to host other people’s parties”. Some carmakers see more of an opportunity to profit as they could benefit beyond their share of the monthly charges for connectivity. Using the data to tweak the design and performance of their vehicles by identifying components that are more likely to cause problems will both help them to improve the cars they produce and cut warranty costs. Good connectivity should help to reinforce brand loyalty too.
The relationship between carmakers and their customers is at arm’s length at present, operating through a dealership system that is reminiscent of that between handset-makers and operators. After selling a car through a franchised dealer, further interaction with car buyers is limited to a dealership visit every couple of years for a service (or sooner if there is a problem). Connectivity will bring the customer and carmaker closer together. Ship and forget will be supplanted by ship and update, which is what makers of computers and mobile devices do already. So far car companies seem unclear about what this will mean for how they do business.
Getting closer to their customers should at least make the carmakers more responsive. The data can help manufacturers and dealers target customers more efficiently. As well as sending details of offers, dealers might better fit a particular car to a driver through an analysis of individual driving habits. They could suggest extra features that would suit some motorists, from hybrid technology to modest add-ons. Some carmakers are already miles along this road. Elon Musk, Tesla’s boss, laughs at the suggestion that his customers would accept anything less than a high degree of connectivity and interaction when he sells them an electric car.
The data could help customers know more about cars too. Motorists will have the ability to find out the actual miles per gallon a car will do in the real world rather than trust the claims made by car companies, which use a box of tricks to make their vehicles unrealistically frugal during tests.
Carmakers, usually conservative and slow-moving, are getting ready. Aside from the engine, body and interior, cars already contain lots of electrical architecture. Most of the big firms have set up connected-car groups to work alongside their electrical engineers to ensure that the hardware and software required for connectivity fit. Detroit’s car guys are deferring to techies, poached from the software industry, who are adept at dealing with app-makers and the like. Carmakers are looking closely at Tesla, which describes itself as a “software company that builds cars”, for inspiration.
Connectivity will eventually change the way cars are integrated into transport systems. Car sharing, either through car clubs run by the big rental firms or peer-to-peer services, will be far easier when communication between vehicles and potential passengers is seamless and any car can be accessed and operated securely by any smartphone. Making journeys using several forms of transport, including a car, will be smoother if it is easier to find car-sharing locations or parking spaces close to connecting points for trains or buses.
And with increasing automation and connectivity there will be less need to have to own or drive these vehicles yourself. Today’s experimental autonomous cars stuffed full of on-board sensors are only part of the solution. The development of systems that let cars talk to cars, and to the world beyond, will be just as important on the road to a driverless future.