There are not many places a mobile application cannot be enjoyed, but the car has traditionally been one of them. However, automakers are now teaming up with tech companies to ensure that consumers are connected, even while driving. A lot of these connected cars were on show at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas this week.
Prior to the tradeshow beginning, news broke of a forthcoming partnership, called the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), among Google and automakers Audi, General Motors (GM), Hyundai and Honda as well as chip-maker Nvidia. All members want to advance the use of the Android platform in connected cars. “This will create a universally compatible platform across different cars and promote the seamless user experience,” says Nick Sugimoto of Honda Silicon Valley Lab.
Automakers have integrated connectivity technology into their cars, in order to make in-car apps a possibility. At this year’s CES, GM revealed its 2015 cars can be purchased with LTE connectivity and access to an app store. Meanwhile, Audi brought a tablet to the tradeshow able to link with a car’s LTE to manage music and connect to the web. ZTE and voice technology company Nuance revealed at CES they would team up to enable hands-free communication with cars. ZTE developed a Car Mode application that recognizes the driver’s voice and responds to his or her directive — meaning next time you miss the exit and need to concentrate, you may be able to stop the music with one breath and call ahead to say you’ll be late with another.
Automakers concern themselves with the potential for distracted driving. More than 6,600 people have died in distraction-affected accidents over the past two years. Tuning the radio, texting and setting navigation systems all take eyes off the road. To remedy the danger, some companies have introduced voice-related services that activate controls that in years past required a user’s touch. Sugimoto stresses safety is Honda’s top priority and mentions potential connected-car features that could be enabled by voice; emails could be read aloud or texts sent by speaking.
This sector is growing fast. In a 2013 report, GSMA and research firm SBD predict that the connected car industry will grow to €39 billion (approximately $53 billion) in 2018, and “almost 36 million new cars will be shipped globally with embedded telematics” by that same year. CES 2014 seems to have witnessed the rumblings of an industry poised to stomp on the pedal and tear into billions in revenues and market cap.
Internet-connected cars and internal entertainment systems are just the start of the revolution though. Producing autonomous vehicles that are able to partially or completely drive on their own is the ultimate goal. At CES, a BMW connected vehicle, though programmed to makes its way around a racetrack, responded to conditions like wet terrain autonomously. Nvidia debuted a new processor at the tradeshow that could become crucial to independent vehicles, as it is capable of discerning signage and other meaningful symbols and objects, like lane lines and fellow cars. Audi, on the other hand, connected with Las Vegas’ traffic light system to demonstrate how their start-stop engines flare, without being told to, seconds before lights go from red to green.
Autonomy in cars thrills some and disturbs others. There are those that suspect the driverless variety to be hackable and dangerous, and fear the moment humans grow comfortable turning the wheel over to technology. Others seem to rue the idea that humans need Internet access on their way to the grocery store.
Technology that makes cars aware of their surroundings return insights only when other machines yield them. Cars like those of Ford, which demoed vehicle-to-vehicle communication-equipped cars at the tradeshow, rely on GPS signals from other cars equipped with the same capabilities. And for Audi to get data from traffic lights in order to direct cars to slow down or start going, first the company must dig into distinct cities’ programs. As many use disparate systems, it’s fair to say worldwide deployment will be a slog.
Autonomous cars are still a way off, primarily due to infrastructure limitations. But the concept of the connected car is not one of the future, it’s here now. The companies providing the apps, connectivity and content to cars are on the inside of a very fast paced industry, steering in the right direction.