Road Ahead: Connected Cars

Sat, 07/23/2011 - 6:55pm
Monica Alleven

Whether the U.S. Department of Transportation likes it or not, cars are increasingly getting connected. And there’s a bigger role for wireless carriers to play.

It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago, the U.S. auto industry was in dire straits. General Motors and Chrysler ended up getting assistance through T.A.R.P. Ford didn’t need government assistance, but 2008 marked its worst year in history.

Now, Eminem is singing the praises of the Motor City in ads for Chrysler. Car manufacturers and some of their suppliers are on a high-tech hiring spree. As wireless carriers put more emphasis on the M2M space, they by design are also getting more involved with connected vehicles.

Seattle-based Airbiquity, which provides wireless software-based solutions to the auto industry, has lived through the ups and the downs. It expanded into the Motor City in 2006, just before everything fell apart at the end of 2007 and early 2008. Finally, toward the end of 2009 and the early part of 2010, it was clear that auto makers were ready to reinvest. Ever since, it’s been on fire.

“We can’t hire fast enough,” says Leo McCloskey, vice president of marketing, noting a 35 percent growth in staff. “We know how to be a good supplier. Our relationships often are with suppliers to the auto maker.” In fact, he says, Airbiqutiy is seeing more business in the last 12 months than any other time in its history.

Backseat Touchscreen

McCloskey admits the downturn represented a huge storm, but Airbiquity didn’t have to lay off very many employees; it closed a financial round at the end of 2007 and didn’t add a lot of new hires at that time. It used the quiet time to invest in infrastructure and services, and as it turned out, it was good timing.

Airbiquity basically sits between the auto maker and the person in the vehicle, and it works with several auto makers offering its white-label software as a service. By using Airbiquity, Ford didn’t have to force its customers into a specific, separate data plan or device. That also means auto makers can tailor services that match one set of demographics and switch it up for another vehicle line.

Over the years, wireless has played a key role with the automotive industry. In the early days, there were those “car phones.” Later, much attention was centered around OnStar, which has a long-standing agreement to get its connectivity from Verizon Wireless. Nowadays, car makers are putting modules in vehicles that tie into carriers’ networks.

Working direct with carriers hasn’t been a key focus of Airbiquity in the past, but that could be changing. “We’re finding ourselves in interesting discussions with operators about how we can collaborate,” McCloskey says. There’s also more attention from systems integrators like Accenture, HP and others.

Ford will stick with the “brought in” strategy as much as possible because that gives consumers the most flexibility, and that plays well with customers retaining a relationship with their carriers, whether it’s AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA or someone else, says Jim Buczkowski, Ford’s global director of Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering. “We’ve had great relationships with all our carriers because of Sync and the importance of various carrier devices, making sure those devices work with Sync,” he says.

But there also are times when it makes sense for the auto maker to make direct deals with the carriers, such as when modules are embedded in vehicles. Ford, for example, is using embedded AT&T wireless connections in Ford Focus Electric vehicles.

Having embedded modules is particularly fitting for electric vehicles because it’s a newer format that few drivers are familiar with and a built-in connection makes for a better experience, Buczkowski says. Drivers need to find places to charge the vehicle’s battery and the best times to do that. The embedded connection and a dedicated app allow the owner to monitor and control vehicle charge settings, locate charging stations and do other tasks, like pre-heating or cooling the car.

It also helps that AT&T uses GSM, which is popular in a lot of other parts of the world as Ford eventually takes its vehicles beyond U.S. Interstates and into other countries, he says.

LTE Connected Car

Glenn Lurie, director of emerging technologies at AT&T, expects down the road, every vehicle will be smarter, all with the idea of making consumers’ lives more convenient and safer, with features like vehicle diagnostics, computers that pre-warn owners of problems, notifications of real-time traffic and the best route to take.

AT&T also has deals with BMW and with Nissan for the Leaf, and all the auto makers have their own strategies and ways to differentiate. “We as a carrier are working with all the different ways … Some are simple transport and backbone and others are more involved in delivering the services,” Lurie says.

Of course, the types of technology used by U.S. carriers continues to change. While consumers regularly upgrade their phones, they tend to hold onto a car for a much longer period of time.That means the car makers have to think and plan years ahead. The key is building in systems that are upgradable without having to treat the car as obsolete. MyFord Touch allows customers to bring in a USB modem and create a Wi-Fi hotspot and the modem connects back to 3G or 4G.

Eventually, having a vehicle connected all the time, whether the customer is inside it or not, is probably inevitable. Whether that connection is 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi or something else is left to the specific use cases. “It’s not as much about the technology as the experiences we want to create for customers,” Buczkowski says.

Alcatel-Lucent, through its ng Connect Program, has been showing off its concept car at trade shows like Mobile World Congress (MWC). The vehicle shows how all the wireless services connect into the car’s operating system and the cloud. The ng Connect now has more than 60 members, ranging from HP to Kyocera to Nuance. At this past MWC in February, an LTE element was added to the car, providing always-on connectivity versus the previous generation that relied on bridging technologies.

In the LTE car model, a module is embedded and built into the bill of materials for the car, so it’s always there. “We’re moving up the evolutionary path,” says Chris Carfagnini, senior director, Emerging Technology & Innovation at Alcatel-Lucent. True broadband is expected to arrive in time for the 2012-2013 model years.

Based on an Alcatel-Lucent survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers, more than 50 percent of respondents find the concept of the Connected Car appealing. The top five applications they would pay for include: augmented GPS; maintenance, tracking and notification; Wi-Fi; advanced voice features; and online analysis for environmental purposes.

Verizon Wireless showed off a Buick LaCross outfitted with a 4G LTE modem at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), with OnStar providing prototype applications that included cameras for remote viewing and impact detection, home monitoring and traffic views.

Sprint is feeling the charge as well, working with ECOtality to provide the wireless network that will allow ECOtality to monitor and manage its Blink Network, an infrastructure of electric vehicle chargers across the United States. ECOtality will install nearly 15,000 electric vehicle chargers at residential and commercial locations this year.

During a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in January, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse described how Sprint’s vision goes beyond connecting millions of cars. It’s about providing “Connected Transportation” to trucks, buses, subways, taxis, planes, police cars and ambulances, so that they can be instantly linked through voice, data and images.

Sprint has been involved in the connected transportation space for many years. Traditionally, however, its efforts were fairly disparate, whether it was selling tracking devices to fleets or navigation to other industries. Recently, it has taken steps to streamline things, according to Tim Johnson, strategic opportunities manager in Emerging Solutions for Sprint Nextel.

Are car makers more interested in working direct with carriers these days? The short answer is yes, he says. Embedded modules allow additional opportunities to leverage the wireless networks, like making sure the doors are locked when you’re miles away from the vehicle, or getting information about the car’s performance and sending that back to the car company. If a car has a module connected to a carrier network and the Internet, the system can go to the cloud and trigger a signal that sends a command to the car to warm up the seats. “There are so many more value propositions added to the story that it makes for a wise investment,” he says.


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