Connected cars open up to apps and the cloud

July 23, 2012

(Credit: Cooperatives Vehicle Infrastructure Systems)

The automobile of the future will not just have Internet access; it will depend on it, says Jon Stewart on BBC Future.

By tapping into the mass of data your car produces, combined with the huge computing resources available on the web, apps could help save you — and everyone around you — fuel, time and money.

Several manufacturers including Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Audi and most recently Honda already offer basic connected car systems that act as a portal to the Internet, but also provide practical benefits such as alerting the driver to collisions, or delays on the road ahead, and automatically finding new routes to avoid them.

According to research firm ABI Research, 60.1% of cars will be connected to the web by 2017; in Europe and North America, the figure will be closer to 80%.

Syncing up

Ford’s Sync connects your smartphone and MP3 player to the car’s dashboard. It allows drivers to make telephone calls and control the car’s radio using their voice, among other things.

BMW recently announced that it would allow vetted third-party apps developed for Google’s Android phone software to work with its Connected Drive system (it already allowed the system to tap into some iPhone apps)

Modern cars are incredibly sophisticated, with up to 80 different computer control units that monitor everything from engine performance and braking, to direction of travel, velocity and road conditions. Sharing it could open up a whole new world of possibilities. Bug Labs‘s OpenXC lets drivers install a small piece of hardware in their car which taps into the vehicles’ sensors and control units and generated data that can be read by compatible apps on Android.

The EU-sponsored Cooperatives Vehicle Infrastructure Systems project aims to develop a “universal communications module” that can read data from any vehicle. Data would be channelled in two ways: to other cars and over mobile connections and DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) networks — a wi-fi like technology that is currently used for electronic road toll connection, for example.

Car-to-car communication could be useful in safety systems, for example, allowing a car to prevent a driver pulling out of a blind junction if another vehicle is approaching or forming the basis of a peer-to-peer collision warning system to spot and advise about hazards on the road ahead.

Always on

But the intention of the mobile and DSRC network is to build an “always-connected” communications channel between the car and the net. This opens up the possibility of each car sharing and consuming unique cuts of information. Obvious applications include streaming entertainment apps and software that can tap into the speed and direction of travel of a car to “crowdsource” traffic updates.

An always-on connection — coupled with a standardized, machine-readable data format — also raises other intriguing possibilities, such as allowing vehicles to tap into the “cloud” — the vast amount of computing power available on the web. This could create a host of powerful, smarter apps. For example, in 2011, Ford announced a deal with the search giant Google to use the firm’s prediction algorithms to spot trends in large data sets.

Ford’s idea  would send a car’s information to Google’s data centers. Over time, the algorithms would begin to predict where you are driving to every time you sit in the driver’s seat, depending on the time of day and your usual driving habits. This would allow it to determine the most fuel-efficient journey, with the best driving conditions and the least traffic.

Wi-fi sharing

One idea is to use wi-fi. A system proposed recently by researchers from MIT, Georgetown University and the National University of Singapore showed how a fleet of wi-fi enabled cars could share limited wi-fi connections by shuffling data between them all, and using a select few cars to collect everyone’s data and upload it when it finds a hotspot. The system is theoretical at the moment, but it gives an indication of the kind of technology that could begin to hit cars in the future.

Another problem that will need to be solved is security. Researchers have already demonstrated that control systems in cars are vulnerable to attack. But once data from those critical systems — like brakes and engines — is being streamed, read and processed on the net for real, it will be even more crucial to ensure it cannot be subverted by hackers.