One thing is clear; the next generation car will be a connected car. The exact definition of a connected car is the subject of some debate but almost everyone agrees it entails some form of internet connectivity creating the potential for a rather significant component within the so-called “Internet of Things”. For certain, we are in the midst of a convergence of wireless technology with personal transportation to connect us to the many other facets of our lives including home and office. However, as with most things involving the automobile industry, exactly how this shakes out will be an arduous process to observe and, worse yet, in which to be a consumer.
The reasons to connect a car are more than just to provide entertainment. Driver assistance, performance monitoring, and vehicle diagnostics along with a plethora of passenger conveniences are just some of the benefits. The panacea of the connected car is, of course, the self-driving or autonomous vehicle. While that is purported to become a reality within the next 5-10 years, it is unlikely that many of us will see it on the roads in our lifetime as it painstakingly navigates the many technical and regulatory hurdles. None-the-less, some level of connectivity is already available and much advancement is just around the corner to make many of the benefits mentioned above a reality.
According to Intel, BMW was the first car company to manufacture a new car connected to the internet in 2001. However, the first car ever connected to the internet is believed to be a 1999 convertible Volkswagen Beetle outfitted by Rob Stevens of Bunnyfoot.com in the UK. The car used a Fujitsu-Siemens laptop and Nokia phone on the Orange network. The system was operated using a dashboard-mounted number keypad taken from a traditional keyboard and read out emails using a digital voice. The invention was announced in December of 2000 in the midst of the dot-com crash and unfortunately received little attention. But Stevens recognized that, with the average person spending nearly 2 hours each day in their car, adding internet capability offered the potential for commuters to be more efficient with that time. His vision that cars would be connected in the not-too-distant future has proven to be prophetic. Automobile manufacturers, smartphone suppliers, service companies, and even insurance firms are now ambitiously tackling car connectivity using three basic approaches.
The first is an aftermarket approach using the car’s onboard diagnostic port. The OBD-II port is used by service technicians to access the car’s subsystem and report diagnostic information. The existence of a diagnostic port has a history dating back to 1969 but the port in its current form (more or less) was mandated for all cars sold in the US beginning in 1996. This followed California’s mandate a year or two earlier, which was motivated by their desire for state-wide emissions testing. Unless the car is being serviced though, the port remains unused and is easily accessible underneath the car’s dash. Several companies are exploiting that port to enable a number of connected services in the car. Progressive’s well-publicized Snapshot® plugs into this port to access the car’s systems in reporting driver behavior. However, Snapshot does not provide connectivity and must be removed after a period of time and returned to Progressive for analysis. State Farm, on the other hand, has a Drive Safe and Save program that utilizes an OBD-II plug-in called In-Drive that connects via Bluetooth to a clip-on visor unit that communicates vehicle information via OnStar. Similarly, a company called PayBySky, has an OBD-II plug-in and a Bluetooth-enabled dashboard LCD display combo that enables drivers to park and automatically pay the parking fee from a pre-loaded account. The system uses a combination of satellite, Wi-Fi, and mobile signals to determine your exact location and pay the appropriate parking fee. Verizon is involved in a couple of connectivity systems that utilize the OBD-II port. Delphi Automotive offers Delphi Connect for real-time diagnostics of the car’s operation and remote control of key fob operations. As an option, it can even provide a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot within your car. The system communicates over the internet using Verizon’s 4G LTE service. Following the loss of their OnStar affiliation, Verizon introduced their own Verizon Vehicle for essentially the same purpose as Delphi Connect but their system includes a clip-on visor unit with added features such as roadside assistance and direct communication with mechanics. Both Delphi Connect and Verizon Vehicle can be paired with smartphones for remote reporting and control. Obviously, systems that utilize the OBD-II port are primarily aimed at older cars (provided they were manufactured after 1996) or new cars not equipped with integrated connectivity. The downside is that the units must be unplugged when the vehicle is serviced leading to possible complications in reconnecting.
Another approach to vehicle connectivity involves compatibility with your smartphone using integrated vehicle systems specifically designed for using the phone as the connection to the internet. These systems are quite new and still evolving. Not surprisingly, two major players dominate this space; Google with their Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay standards. Here the car’s dashboard display mimics the phone and enables voice command via Google Now or Apple’s Siri. In so doing, many of the smartphone’s capabilities can be utilized within the car without distracting the driver. While some of the car’s onboard functionality can be accessed by the phone, access to car data is still under development. Interestingly, many of the in-car systems run on an operating system known as QNX, which Blackberry acquired in 2010 and also uses for their Blackberry 10 phones and tablets. Microsoft was an early entry into this field with a version of its Windows CE called Windows Embedded Automotive, but is now struggling to compete with QNX.
A final method is to embed the entire system within the car including the “radio” or modem for connection to the internet. Examples of this include Ford’s SYNCH, GM’s OnStar, BMW’s ConnectedDrive, and Tesla’s Linux-based system within the Model S. Though the connection to the internet is provided onboard the vehicle, smartphones can also connect via apps that enable you to monitor and control the in-car system. One of the early entries with this type of system was Ford who launched their Windows-based SYNCH in 2007. The 3rd generation SYNCH is now being launched using the QNX operating system and supports a USB port for use with a mobile broadband modem for connection to the internet much like a notebook computer does. GM’s OnStar utilizes an onboard radio to connect to the internet. The system initially used Verizon for the connection but now uses AT&T’s 4G LTE network. Tesla’s Model S also now uses AT&T’s 4G LTE network and offers a wealth of features including software updates to the in-car system. BMW’s ConnectedDrive, however, uses a slower 3G network. Some vehicles have attempted to use satellite internet connectivity similar to what airplanes use for in-flight WiFi but, like the airlines, have found that latency issues as the signal bounces off satellites makes for a poor experience. One interesting development is that Google is attempting to embed the next version of Android directly into the car. It has formed the Open Automotive Alliance with many of the major automobile manufacturers, chip suppliers, and other potential suppliers to tackle the concept. The most notable absentees from this alliance though are BMW, GM, Daimler Benz, Toyota, and Tesla.
The concern with approaches that utilize in-car systems is that we typically hang onto our cars much longer than we do our smartphones. While any advances in software features can easily be downloaded and upgraded within the vehicle similar to smartphones, hardware advances cannot. Your car’s system may become old school before you’re ready to trade it in. Additionally, those with onboard radios are dictating which service provider to use; AT&T in many cases. If you do not already have a plan with the manufacturer’s chosen provider, you will have to establish a separate mobile contract. At least in the case of AT&T, you can add the car to your current Mobile Share Plan but it will still add $10 to your monthly bill. While none of the three approaches are completely ideal, connecting your car through the smartphone may offer the most flexibility.
Whatever the ultimate approach, a connected car offers many advantages; some important and some mere conveniences. Imagine having your connected car detecting a future potential problem and assisting you in scheduling it for service while, at the same time, communicating with your home so that the house is warmed up, the lights are on, and the front door is unlocked as you pull into the driveway following hands-free completion of those last few work-related emails and phone calls during your commute home.