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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Safety and integration challenges

The connected car will open up new money-making opportunities for car makers and their partners -- including developers of in-car apps and makers of dashboard interface systems, as well as hotels, gas stations and other businesses that cater to travelers. Even the new safety features will boost revenues from car sales, since drivers will pay extra for vehicles that protect them from crashes. Peterson notes that according to AutoPacific's driver surveys, roughly one-third of people who buy Ford cars today do so because of the technical features such as Internet connectivity.

However, as with any wireless connection, there are also concerns about connected car safety and security. Researchers have proven that Bluetooth, cellular networks and other entry points into your car's systems are vulnerable to determined hackers. There's also the more basic problem of distracted driving -- as drivers deal with more and more onscreen data and feeds, will they be less aware of, and slower to respond to, what's happening outside their cars?

According to the NHTSA, 20% of the 1.5 million crashes that resulted in injury in the U.S. in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving, which the government defines as "any nondriving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing." In addition to taking your eyes off the road or hands off the wheel, this includes "taking your mind off what you're doing." Not surprisingly, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has spoken out against infotainment devices in cars, saying they contribute to distracted driving.

Another hurdle is integration. Any IT professional who has deployed a complex ERP system or has tried to link communications tools from different vendors knows that integration is one of computing's greatest challenges. When the computer has four wheels and speeds along at 70 mph, the challenges are even greater.

So how will car companies integrate all of the technologies inside a car and then make sure they connect to systems in other cars and along the roadways? And how will they do that in a way that keeps drivers and other vehicles safe? "That question is way above my pay grade," jokes Peterson. "There are very smart engineers working on this, and they decide what is possible and what they can't even allow at higher speeds."

The Department of Transportation makes suggestions about the safety of in-car IT systems, but manufacturers aren't required to follow them, according to Ford's Hall. Nevertheless, it is in the automakers' best interests to prevent distracted-driving accidents. In addition to carefully vetting the apps it allows to run in its vehicles, "Ford takes proactive steps to limit distractions while driving, including locking our visual content such as sports scores, as well as limiting navigation destination entry to just voice -- no typing on the screen," says Hall.

But having manufacturers police themselves on safety has sometimes led to problems. Peterson cites BMW's early-2000s iDrive system for controlling the car's climate, audio, navigation and more as an example of too-complicated technology that drew drivers' attention away from the road. "Designed by engineers for engineers, the system was practically impossible to decipher," he says, adding that it's up to manufacturers and designers to "clearly understand what the distractions are and make sure their vehicles minimize the distraction. The key is ease of use."

As for data security and integration, the DSRC network is being designed with both issues in mind. The DOT's plan is to have all vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications transmitted over the closed network, which will keep cars' data sequestered from the Internet and provide a single communications platform for car makers to work with. According to attorney Laurenza, recent DOT policy papers point to a DSRC certification process for all sensors and wireless connections in a car.

However, the DSRC network is still a work in progress. Part of the challenge, according to Peterson, is getting all of the car companies to agree on standard protocols, not to mention exactly what to communicate over the network. No car companies have yet announced vehicles that will work with DSRC, but they say they're making progress.

GM DSRC transponder
This portable transponder, which GM demonstrated in October, uses DSRC signals to communicate with similar devices in other vehicles. (Credit: GM)

"We are actively developing the technology and working with our government and automaker partners globally to help deliver it as quickly and affordably possible," says Ford spokesperson Wes Sherwood.

GM is taking a somewhat different approach. Rather than building the technology into the car itself, the company is developing portable devices and smartphone apps that make use of DSRC. The company, which recently demonstrated such a device, says this approach will make DSRC communications available to a greater range of drivers.

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