Car tech: The connected car arrives

Welcome to the era of cars that connect to the Internet, to each other and to the public infrastructure

car wireless

Automobile technology has become so advanced that today's cars are essentially computers with wheels. So why aren't we using them to surf the Web, communicate with other cars or order food at nearby restaurants?

We're well on our way. Current models of several cars, including the Ford Edge, the Audi A6 and the Lincoln MKX, can all connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi or 3G networks. These connections bring streaming audio and video, Twitter feeds, spoken text messages and current traffic information into the vehicle.

And that's just the beginning. In the near future, you'll be able to browse the Web and get Facebook updates on your in-car navigation screen. And in coming years, wireless standards such as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) will help cars connect to one another and to the road infrastructure, communicating real-time road conditions and other helpful information.

There are still numerous technical, legal and privacy issues to be worked out, not to mention major concerns over distracted driving and safety. But like it or not, the day of the connected car is dawning.

Bringing the Internet into the car

Ford is among the automakers leading the connected-car charge. Take, for instance, the Ford Edge. The 2011 and 2012 models of the souped-up crossover let you create your own in-car hotspot: Just plug your own mobile broadband modem or smartphone into one of the two USB ports, then share the connection with all your passengers over Wi-Fi.

And the company's Sync platform, built by Microsoft, provides a range of connected features including voice-controlled navigation with turn-by-turn directions, 4-1-1 business search and personalized traffic alerts. You can also plug in a music player via USB or pair a phone to the car via Bluetooth, then use voice commands to play music over the car's stereo system, make a call or have your text messages read aloud to you -- no headset required.

The Edge and other vehicles, such as the Lincoln MKX, have built-in touch displays that work much like a tablet or smartphone. Now used primarily for navigation and in-car controls (such as playing the radio), such displays will offer Web browsing in the next few years in many makes and models, according to George Peterson, the president of Detroit-based market research and consulting firm AutoPacific.

Ford Edge screen incoming call
An incoming call appears on the Ford Edge's touchscreen. Drivers can use voice commands to accept it. (Credit: Ford)

The Edge can already connect to Wi-Fi hotspots, and a Web browser will be available on its 8.3-inch navigation screen in the next few months, according to Ford spokesperson Alan Hall, who declined to be more specific about timing. The browser will be operational only while the vehicle is parked, he says. The idea is that when you park anywhere near Wi-Fi, you'll be able to tap into the Web.

In the next few years, almost all new cars will offer built-in browsing and other Net-connected apps, says Peterson. Meanwhile, he says, Ford's strategy is to use smartphones as the primary interface. About a dozen Ford cars, SUVs and trucks now support the company's Sync AppLink technology, which lets you control certain Android, iOS or BlackBerry apps using voice commands or, in some models, the touch panel or buttons on the steering wheel.

Current AppLink-enabled apps include Pandora streaming music, Stitcher Internet radio, the iHeartRadio music player and OpenBeak, a Twitter app. All four have been optimized for voice control, and OpenBeak can read tweets aloud so your eyes stay on the road.

In October 2010, the company began releasing its software development kit to other developers interested in creating AppLink-enabled apps, but according to Doug VanDagens, director of connected services for Ford, the company doesn't make its API available to just any developer who wants to make apps for Ford cars.

"We pick high-volume trusted partners [whose products], we believe, are safe for use in the car -- so no gaming, no highly graphic-intensive things. There's all kinds of people who want to provide functionality in the car that we're just not interested in -- it's not safe," he says. (More on distracted driving concerns later in the story.)

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