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Cars Are Fast Becoming Smartphones on Wheels

Wireless connections in cars are becoming faster and more capable, bringing new features, new services—and new problems.

On average, people in the United States spend 15 hours per week in their cars.

Most new cars roll off the production line today with as many sensors, computer chips, and lines of code as you’d find in a trunk-load of smartphones. What’s more, thanks to deals between carmakers and wireless carriers, cars increasingly come with high-speed, always-on, wireless connectivity—setting up both new kinds of services and a higher potential for distraction and malfeasance.

hand holding device
Remote control: This app, from Delphi, can be used to track a car’s position and monitor its engine condition remotely.

Today, the third-largest wireless carrier in the U.S., Sprint, announced a service that will let carmakers improve the sophistication of mobile apps that connect with a vehicle’s onboard computer system. Prototype apps developed for this new platform can send directions from a smartphone to a dashboard navigation system, adjust the air-conditioning system remotely so it’s cool before the driver gets in, or pinpoint a vehicle in a busy parking lot. The platform, called Sprint Velocity, uses protocols designed for machine-to-machine communications.

The Sprint platform also uses software from IBM called MobileFirst to manage communications between a car’s systems and outside apps. Such technology could also let cars report conditions to the driver or to manufacturers more regularly. “You might, for example, get a reading off a car that indicates that the vehicle is slipping on ice,” says Michael Curry, vice president of applications integration middleware at IBM. “That might feed back to a central network, and when the car manufacturer realizes that car is slipping, they may say, ‘Do we have other cars in that area that might be impacted?’ and send a notification to those vehicles or maybe even automatically put those cars into winter mode.”

Wireless connectivity has been creeping into cars since 1996, when GM introduced its OnStar service. It uses a cellular network to provide hands-free calling, navigation, and call-center support during emergencies, and can be used to disable a stolen car remotely. Lured by the prospect of selling recurring subscription fees, all major car manufacturers now offer similar services. Ford vehicles have a slightly different service, called Sync, which connects to a cell phone and uses its modem to connect to a cellular network.

detail car dash
Command center: Chrysler’s Uconnect dashboard informatics system.

The “connected vehicle” market is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years, with a report from the GSMA, a wireless industry body, predicting that connected cars will create a market for related products worth $53 billion by 2018, up from $17 billion in 2012.

But as more wireless functions are added to cars, the risk of driver distraction rises. In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released guidelines for limiting the functions of electronic systems in cars. Defining distraction can be difficult, though. The new guidelines, for example, don’t apply to smartphones or other devices connected to a car’s “infotainment” system. And last month, a study conducted by AAA found that voice-controlled applications can be just as distracting as texting behind the wheel.

“[Distraction] is a key challenge for the auto industry,” says T.C. Wingrove, senior manager of electronic innovation at Visteon, a company that sells dashboard electronics to carmakers. Visteon is conducting usability studies to determine “what are the use cases that excite people the most, and what’s the best way to actually implement those in the vehicle so that you distract them the least and inform them the most,” Wingrove says.

The new connectivity raises the possibility that cars may become targets for hackers motivated by amusement and profit. In 2011, academic researchers demonstrated a way to take control of a vehicle’s computer system through a cellular connection. Stefan Savage, a professor of computer science at the University of California, San Diego, who was involved with the effort, says car companies have invested heavily in security since this demonstration.

“Cars are much more secure than when we did our demo,” says Savage, although he believes greater connectivity will inevitably mean more risk, should hackers turn their attention to the millions of potential targets cruising around the open roads. “As you add more of these digital channels, you have to increase the attack surface,” he says. “There’s no way around it.”

The apps and features found in cars will also become more capable as wireless networks are improved. This year, GM announced that by 2014 most of its vehicles will come with 4G wireless capabilities, provided by AT&T, through its OnStar service—providing enough bandwidth to stream movies to passengers in the backseat.

Meanwhile, there is growing interest among drivers in connecting directly to the computer that monitors and controls a car’s engine and its various electronic systems. In April, Verizon began selling a device that plugs into a car’s onboard diagnostics port, and relays engine information to a smartphone, allowing trips to be logged, the car’s doors to be locked or unlocked remotely, and its engine to be started or stopped with a touch on a smartphone. Similar devices that connect to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can be bought at auto hardware stores.

Ultimately, the wireless connections in cars may augment dedicated car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure technology used to manage traffic and even prevent accidents (see “The Internet of Cars Is Approaching a Crossroads”). 

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