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

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Pandora on Toyota Entune
Pandora Radio has partnered with several automakers to integrate its smartphone app with cars' dashboard screens (controllable by voice). The Toyota Entune version is shown here. (Credit: Toyota)

Several other automakers have followed Ford's lead, offering voice-enabled smartphone app integration with select 2012 models. Examples include Buick IntelliLink, BMW ConnectedDrive, Cadillac Cue, Chevrolet MyLink, Mini Connected and Toyota Entune. Toyota's Entune service, available with the 2012 Prius V, Camry and Tacoma, currently offers the most apps, with Bing search, iHeartRadio, Movietickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora and various data services including stock price updates, traffic reports and weather forecasts.

Another highly connected vehicle is the Audi A8. Chuhee Lee, a senior staff engineer with VW/Audi, says the A8 supports Google Earth so you can "pre-visualize" your travel plans. For example, if you type in an address on the in-car navigation system, the car connects to the Web over 3G and shows you a Google Earth rendering for that destination, including buildings, roadways and other points of interest.

The A8 also uses the photo-sharing site Panoramio to help you plan a travel route. For example, if you're planning a trip to San Francisco, you'll see Panoramio thumbnails of, say, the Golden Gate Bridge on the in-car nav screen. You can then tap on the touchscreen on a thumbnail for a full-screen view. The service works by encoding images with geolocation data; the A8 feeds the encoded images to your local navigation system.

New connectivity scenarios

In-car wireless connections will open up a world of opportunity, says K. Venkatesh Prasad, the group and technical leader of Infotronics Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford. For example, you might hear a recipe on the radio in your car, speak a few commands to look up the recipe on the Internet, and transmit the Web page to your own email address so that it's waiting for you on your PC when you get home.

This type of app might initially run on a smartphone, Prasad explains, but eventually cloud-based applications will run on your car in the same way they do on your computer or your smartphone today, as demonstrated by the recently unveiled Ford Evos concept car. The information that appears on the car's touchscreen is gathered and processed remotely by cloud apps.

Evos concept app

A cloud app envisioned for the Evos concept car makes use of social media to help you plan your route (see video). (Credit: Ford)

A cloud app might, for example, connect to a local grocer with instructions about what items you need to make that recipe you've just saved, how to package them, and even when you're likely to arrive at the store to pick them up based on your current location. And when you do pick up your groceries, an e-wallet app could communicate your payment info to the grocer -- all with minimal input from you.

Just as years ago Amazon tweaked the book-buying experience to work online, giving e-commerce a tremendous kick-start, Prasad says, cloud-based apps need to be tuned for driving. Apps that are customized for hands-free driving, for example, could reduce distraction issues while helping people remain productive while they're on the road. "We need to get the Internet tuned to road speed," he adds.

OnStar, General Motors' in-car telematics unit, is also developing some interesting car-connection options. Many GM cars are equipped with OnStar's Stolen Vehicle Slowdown technology, which gives law enforcement officers the ability to remotely stop a vehicle that's been reported stolen. The police send the vehicle information number (VIN) to OnStar, which then sends a wireless signal to the car that causes the accelerator to stop working. (The steering, brakes and electronics in the car continue to work.)

A future scenario could involve taking control of a stolen car's steering to guide it to the side of the road, says Nick Pudar, a business development vice president at OnStar.

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