Computing

Phone App Could Keep an Eye on Your Ride

Intel is testing technology that would issue an alert if someone hit your parked car, and could capture video if a thief made off with it.

When Victor Lortz’s phone buzzes, it may not be just an e-mail or text message. He gets updates from his car, too. Anytime something hits or shakes his parked Infiniti sedan with significant enough force, an app on his smart phone lets him know, and streams live video from the vehicle.

Lortz is a senior research scientist at chipmaker Intel’s research labs in Santa Clara, California. He’s working on a project that connects the electronics inside a car to the Internet, so that mobile apps can provide a car owner with updates on his vehicle when the two are apart.

The system developed by Lortz and colleagues at Intel involves installing a custom circuit board with Atom mobile processors (the type used in some notebook computers). That board interfaces with the car’s electronics, and connects the car to a cloud server over a mobile network.

Intel researchers have developed apps for Android and Apple phones to make use of this new connectivity; they can access data from the car and also send commands to it. The apps can be used for simple things, for example, opening the car door or starting the vehicle, as well as for more sophisticated tasks, like sending an alert and streaming video when the car’s motion sensors or alarm are triggered. The owner can view the live feed immediately, but the video is also archived in the cloud so it can be viewed later.

“The idea of being notified when something happens to your car has a lot of appeal,” says Lortz. “It’s something that’s just not possible today.”

Intel is also considering how a car with the system could share data on the car’s performance with the manufacturer. A person’s driving behavior could also, conceivably, be shared with insurers or local transportation authorities. “We’re looking at how you could collect that without compromising the privacy of the driver,” says Lortz.

Remote control: An Intel researcher demonstrates a way to securely link a phone app to a particular vehicle.

In the past year, many car manufacturers, including BMW, Ford, and Toyota, have made it possible for a car to make use of a smart phone’s Internet connection, enabling the car to use Web radio services like Pandora. But no carmaker has yet developed a security app like Intel’s.

Dominique Bonte, an analyst who specializes in connected-car technology at ABI Research, says Intel’s approach is promising. If it finds favor with multiple manufacturers, it would be easier for software developers to write applications that could be used on many different vehicles, just as different Android phone models can use the same apps. However, he notes, drivers shouldn’t count on their car always being able to contact them. “There are big gaps in mobile coverage across the U.S., especially the high-bandwidth coverage needed for video,” he says.

A recent survey by ABI showed that safety and security features were the most popular connected-car technologies among consumers, suggesting that Intel might be on to something with its proof-of-concept security app. But Bonte thinks that, as car manufacturers make it easier to build apps for their vehicles, less serious apps will also take off. “We found entertainment to be the fastest growing category,” he says. He predicts that the market for in-car apps will mimic the market for phone apps, and will be similarly dominated by music and games.

One big challenge for such technology is that driver attention is constrained, says Bonte. “Car manufacturers are investing a lot in speech technology and are also starting to look at ideas like heads-up displays [which layer information onto the windshield] and gesture recognition,” he says. Such technologies could potentially address the driver attention problem.

Lortz says finding ways to introduce computer interfaces into cars, where they haven’t traditionally appeared, is something Intel’s researchers are focusing on. One example is their attempt to make it easy for drivers to securely link an app with a vehicle. Lortz and his colleagues’ solution is to have a car display a bar code on its dashboard. When a smart phone reads the code, it is instructed to download the app and authenticate with that vehicle only. Phones with short-range wireless data transfer technology—like that used by Google Wallet—can do the same when tapped on a car’s dashboad.

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