The next time you buy a car you probably won't think about mileage, efficiency or comfort; you'll be too busy asking questions about how it connects to the internet. The era of the "connected" car is already upon us in a big way, and the way the dashboard talks to the internet and your smartphone - and to what end - is fast becoming crucial to purchasing decisions.
From Chrysler and Ford to Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz, all the major car companies have dashboards that can use a smartphone for navigation, Siri voice activation or perhaps just hands-free calling.
They all have one more thing in common; they're at an existential crossroads.
Questions troubling motor manufacturing executives are plentiful. For example, should a company that makes cars even attempt to create a smart dashboard operating system, or should it be left to the likes of Google, Apple and Samsung to come up with a polished user interface? Should the car have a SIM card embedded or should it just connect to a smartphone?
"The smartphone is one way of providing integration, and is suitable for bringing content, such as music, into the car," says Shanghai-based Drue Freeman, senior vice-president for global automotive and transportation at NXP Semiconductors.
But there's a whole raft of safety-centric applications that this "slave" approach doesn't allow. NXP has its own connected car solution called ATOP that combines GPS and mobile communications to power an automatic emergency call system, eCall. "In the event of an accident, the device sends an electronic distress signal via the mobile network to the nearest emergency service, saving lives by getting injured people to hospital more quickly," says Freeman.
Apps like eCall - which will be binding for all new cars in the European Union from 2015 - and complex collision-detection technology take the connected car experience way beyond a simple smartphone link. "If a driver is in a crash, there is a high risk the smartphone will be damaged or possibly won't even be in the car and able to dial for help," says Freeman.
Other examples of why a connected car needs its own SIM card are features such as "find my car" apps, remote locking or even pre-trip navigation. If a smartphone is going to make contact with your car to discover its location, lock its doors or send it a route map, both devices need to be online.
"Smartphone tethering - where the intelligence remains in the vehicle, but uses the smartphone's internet connection - is particularity pervasive in China and Japan, but it doesn't allow you to do the same things as embedded," says Francesca Forestieri, director of mAutomotive, Connected Living programme at GSM Association, which represents the world's 800-plus mobile network operators.
"It depends what kind of services a car manufacturer wants to offer. For instance, Ford relies on smartphone integration, which solves a few challenges associated with embedded technology - they don't have to have everything built in. But there's a complexity about developing apps across different vehicles and smartphones that makes it a challenging space."
The apps for connected cars are almost limitless. "As well as connecting personal mobile devices for movies, music, games, social media and work, they will provide access to real-time route planning and location-based information, along with remote maintenance and diagnostics," says Tom Blackie, vice-president of mobile at remote access software developer RealVNC, which works with car manufacturers on connected systems.
Remote diagnostics means your mechanic will know what's wrong with your car before you drop it off. You'll probably make it there on time, too, if China Unicom's plans are realised.
At the recent Mobile Asia Expo 2013 in Shanghai, BMW demonstrated its ConnectedDrive system, for which China Unicom provides a location-based traffic navigation service - literally a 24/7 concierge - to help drivers navigate China's megacities. It's a system that will not only beat congestion - remember the 2012 traffic jam in Beijing that spanned more than 100 kilometres for more than 10 days? - but will also save money. The GSM Association calculates that the average urban commute in the biggest Chinese cities is about 80 minutes per day, which costs the country US$22 billion in economic productivity.
While the connected car is fast becoming a fixture, what shape it will take remains to be seen. "The same technology, ideally, needs to work worldwide across all cars, as Bluetooth does," says William Webb, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers fellow and CSO of Neul, which is focused on creating the Internet of Everything.
"Obviously, the business case needs to be viable, and cars are often manufactured to a very tight budget, [while] the automotive industry is typically risk averse and slow to adopt new concepts."
An easy option would be to let Apple get in the driving seat. Plainly named "iOS in the Car", Apple is counting on its reputation for creating likeable user interfaces to persuade manufacturers to allow their connected car dashboards to mirror the driver's iPhone. Most new cars already allow drivers to hook up their iPhone for music playback, so it's no surprise that pledges of support for iOS in the Car have already come from the likes of Ferrari, Chevrolet, Kia, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and Jaguar Land Rover.
This fretting over user interfaces is, however, mere detail. In years to come, cars will communicate not only with each other, but with the road infrastructure itself, becoming integral components in the efficient "smart" city. "The benefits of cars that think will be especially relevant in some of Asia's megacities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, which are suffering from major traffic congestion, noise, pollution and a high risk of accidents," says Freeman, who's convinced that IEEE 802.11p wireless networks - called "Car-2-X" - along all roads will eventually put cars in constant communication with each other.
"Safety applications enabled by Car-2-X, include intersection collision warning, emergency brake-light warning, blind-spot or lane-change warning, "do not pass" warning, control-loss warning and much more," says Freeman. The technology to achieve this already exists.
Cars as smart as that have telematics capabilities to report back to insurance companies on exactly how carefully - or not - a car is being driven. That might sound nerve-racking, but the promise of lower insurance premiums will probably win out as the major reason to invest in expensive, connected cars.
"Over time connected cars will become the norm, just as seatbelts did," says Freeman, "and, possibly, in Asia, the love for highly visible features may actually help create that demand."
Smartphones with built-in NFC - near field communication - technology are imminent, and compatible cars won't be far behind. A raft of personalised, one-touch features should follow; a quick tap of your smartphone on your car's dashboard will start your favourite music, activate the air conditioning and automatically adjust your seat.
Connected they might be, but the future is all about customised cars that leave nothing to chance.
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