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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VW's Lee provides another interesting scenario for interconnectedness between cars: The company is conducting ongoing research on technology that could enable cars to transmit route information to one another in real time. With such a system, a driver might send out his travel route to a cloud-based service for owners of supported VW cars. Friends who tap into the service could see where the driver is heading and adjust their own routes to meet him.

This crowdsourcing for travel might even get you discounts at restaurants, gas stations and hotels. If, for example, business owners in a certain town knew a group of travelers would be arriving during a slow sales period or late at night, they might be willing to offer deals.

"In a fully connected scenario, it is not just that your car is connected [to the Internet], but your car is connected to other cars, to your mobile phone, and to your home computer," says Lee. "Your car becomes an assistant and a companion to your digital life."

Connecting to the infrastructure

The next step after vehicle-to-vehicle transmissions is for cars to connect to sensors on or near the road, to stoplights at intersections, and even to facilities such as parking lots to help you find a parking spot at the mall. Some of this communication already occurs -- for instance, some emergency vehicles can communicate with stoplights to make sure the lights have turned green or turn on a blinking red light for cross traffic.

As with car-to-car communications, many of the car-to-infrastructure connections will help make driving safer and will use the DSRC spectrum, says Mikael Gustavsson, the Connectivity Hub Leader at Volvo in charge of in-car connections. For example, your car could tap into the DSRC network and let you know what's up around the next block -- say, that there is an accident and that you should slow down or find an alternate route.

These infrastructure signals could theoretically work in conjunction with sensors that are already in cars. Today, many of the most advanced cars -- such as the Volvo S60, the Audi A8, the Infiniti M37X and the Ford Edge -- have complex sensor networks that can scan in front of the car, control brakes and steering, and even nudge the vehicle back into a lane automatically. If communications capabilities were added to those sensors, a vehicle that senses an icy road might transmit that information not only to nearby cars, but also to a roadside terminal (say, attached to a stop sign) and even beyond that to several other endpoints that in turn transmit the warning to other drivers.

smart intersection
In a "smart intersection," vehicles would communicate both with one another and with the infrastructure so that, say, other cars are warned if one is about to run a red light. (Credit: Ford)

Phil Ames, a senior staff engineer at Intel who works on embedded wireless communications, envisions a future in which car and infrastructure sensors track and communicate everything that's going on, including whether the driver is paying attention. So, for instance, a road sign might send out a wireless signal warning about the prevalence of deer in the area. The car's sensors would receive the signal and go on high alert for a deer jumping out in front of the car, simultaneously preparing the car for sudden braking and audibly warning the driver of the danger.

Related: Car tech: Building the zero-fatality car

But car-to-infrastructure communications won't necessarily stop with roadside signs and sensors. In the next few years, cars will be capable of connecting in a much more robust way to their surroundings, including local businesses. Ford's Prasad calls this the "last inch" problem, which has to do with the location-based information fed to a driver and how that information is displayed. It's one thing to have the wireless connections available, but it's another to use the connections to make driving easier and more worthwhile.

"It is not so much about wireless in the car but how cars are part of the broader physical infrastructure," says Prasad. "The infrastructure looks at who is coming to town and what services could be offered. The car will look for restaurants, places to room for the night, or a movie theater."

Volvo's Gustavsson says the company is working with mobile telecommunications vendor Ericsson on a possible scenario where cars can transmit diagnostic data and other information about a vehicle's health to service stations in certain urban areas. The idea is that you would pay a monthly fee to a repair shop or gas station to constantly monitor your vehicle. You would get notices about real-time service needs or even, say, an alert that you should buy gas now because the next station is too far away.

Some of these features are already available. OnStar, for example, can monitor your vehicle and let you know that you need an oil change or that your tires are wearing down. A similar service, Mercedes mbrace, also provides real-time remote monitoring and can even send a tow truck if you're stalled at the side of the road. What Gustavsson is describing is more localized: the local repair shop monitoring your vehicle within a specified range.

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