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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The companies are also working on giving GM owners remote access to the car's data, Pudar says. You might use your computer or smartphone to look up your miles-per-gallon rating over specific routes over a period of time, and perhaps adjust your plans for maximum MPG. OnStar might also suggest traffic routes based on your driving habits. (OnStar's data tracking has, however, raised some privacy concerns.)

Chevy Volt mobile app
Chevy Volt drivers can use a mobile app to check on the car's battery charge level, MPG and other vehicle info. (Credit: GM)

Some information about routes, MPG and traffic is already available to Chevy Volt drivers through the portal. You can also connect to electric cars such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf via a smartphone app even when you are nowhere near the vehicle.

For example, with the Nissan Carwings system, you can tap in remotely to check on the state of the battery charge or even "recondition" the car to set the temperature level. Toyota has plans for similar apps for its upcoming electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

These innovations will pave the way for even more remote access, such as the ability to have your car plan a travel route before you even slide into the driver's seat, says AutoPacific's Peterson.

Related: Car tech: Electric vehicles get an IT assist

Connecting to other cars

The next major leap will come when cars can communicate directly with one another. Initially, most car-to-car communication technologies will be aimed at curbing the number of accidents and resulting injuries and deaths in cars, according to Paul Laurenza, managing partner in the Washington office of the law firm Dykema, who works with industry members on the Department of Transportation's connected vehicle effort. The DOT estimates that more than 80% of unimpaired driver crashes could be prevented by using vehicle-to-vehicle safety measures, he says.

For example, a vehicle might sense an icy road, then transmit that information to other cars nearby. Or a car whose driver is attempting to pass a truck could get a signal from an approaching car that's over a hill or around a curve, and move back behind the truck until it's safe to pass.

In another scenario, a vehicle about to sideswipe another car could communicate with the car in its path, using a complex algorithm that accounts for speed, proximity and even the percentage chance for collision. The cars would then adjust automatically to prevent a crash -- one car could swerve while the other one slows down, or both cars could swerve at the same time -- communicating all the while so each car knows what the other is doing.

A similar technology that's already in place in cars like the BMW 5 Series is designed to prepare the brakes for fast stopping and to enhance traction control and stability, says AutoPacific's Peterson, but it is based on sensors in the car, not a connection to other cars. The next step is to get cars with such sensors to transmit the data to each other -- something BMW, Daimler and other carmakers are beginning to test in Europe.

This video demonstrates how vehicle-to-vehicle communications could warn a driver attempting to pass another vehicle if there is oncoming traffic that can't be seen. (Credit: Ford)

In the U.S., these car-to-car safety signals will depend on the emerging DSRC standard, a dedicated wireless spectrum that runs in the 5.9GHz band and is closed off from the Internet. Peterson says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pushing automakers to equip future vehicles with transponders that use DSRC to communicate their current status and road conditions to other cars.

The NHTSA is beginning to work with automotive component makers such as Delphi and Johnson Controls to encourage the development of such transponders, according to Peterson. However, he notes that the task is made more difficult by the fact that the various wireless standards for DSRC are still under development by auto manufacturers working with federal and state government agencies. (More on that later in the story.)

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