The Connected Car

Internet-Connected-Car 150pixChris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

Researchers tell us that there are 23 million vehicles on the market today that are connected to the Internet. By 2020 this number will grow by 600% to 152 million vehicles. Consumers are demanding them, authorities want them because of better safety, and carmakers are embracing the idea because they can see the revenue potential. This means the connected car is quickly becoming the hottest “must have” thing in cars in 2014. 39% of car buyers today say they want better In-vehicle technology compared to the 14% who say they make a purchasing decision based on traditional performance measures such as power and speed, according to a study by consulting firm Accenture released in December 2013.

So I recently attended the Toronto Autoshow to see how many 2014 vehicles being sold in Canada are indeed connected to the Internet. Sadly, I was disappointed because many of the new features being touted as the next big thing at the recent Detroit Autoshow were not being shown in Canada. I was told by more than one car representative that this was because automakers have not as yet reached agreements with the CRTC in Canada, and until that happens they cannot activate those features in vehicles sold in the Canadian market.

What I did find was the AutoConnect showcase with vehicles from Lexis, Ford, Mazda, Mercedes and Subaru, showing off their various safety features which connect and communicate with other vehicles and their surroundings via cellular, GPS, radar, laser, infrared, microwave and camera-based technologies. Several manufacturers are now offering adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, lane departure warning and intervention, plus forward collision alert with the most advanced actually breaking and steering by themselves when they detect a potential problem.

I spent time in a Mercedes S Class and experienced many of these safety features in a simulator which created a realistic driver experience. It was both impressive and nerve racking as the car steered itself out of potential danger without my hands being on the wheel. Toyota, through their luxury brand Lexis, are using radar to look two or three vehicles ahead and adjust your speed based on what is happening beyond what you can see. As the technology improves and becomes more prevalent in vehicles, we should see the number of auto accidents drop. This could even lead to lower insurance rates and fewer deaths, but it could be several years before the majority of vehicles on the road will have this technology. It may also take that long for standards to be developed and a clear safety leader to emerge, so that similar technology is present in all vehicles.

Yet, despite the marketing promise that I would see examples of the “connected car” there were none to be found, at least at the Toronto Autoshow. Frankly, I think that is a good thing for the radio industry, given the car is the place that most radio in consumed today. However, there were lots of indications that car manufacturers are eager to put more content on the dashboard and unless our industry works with those manufacturers, I fear that the radio buttons will become less and less prominent and may even disappear altogether. In some vehicles you can plug your smart phone into a dock while others allow you to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect your phone directly to the car’s entertainment system. Listening to music stored on your phone is standard in many cars today, but seeing some of your favourite apps showing up on the car console, and being able to control them via voice or touch is not a reality today as far as I could see, but I suspect it will not be far off.

On the positive side, I found lots of cars on display with improved voice activation tools that enable the driver to turn on the radio, change the volume, and even change the channel without ever taking their hands off the wheel. I did this myself in a Ford, a Lexus and a BMW and I am happy to report that voice activation is working a lot better in the 2014 models than in the past. Still, I could not see any evidence of the apps Ford has been promoting at other shows, and was told it will be several months before we see the next version of the software in Canada. When released it should include apps such as Habu which was introduced at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This is a mood-music app for its Sync system that finds music playlists to match drivers’ moods, including when they’re feeling angry, somber or even sexy! Ford promises other apps will appear on their Sync system that will allow drivers to order a pizza from Dominos (USA only at this point) or reserve a parking spot via Parkopedia, which includes parking information for all major Canadian cities. Ford says 94% of their 2014 model vehicles are equipped with Sync. Ford has their own app developer program and an app approval process similar to Apple’s. However, it is unclear how open Ford will be to allowing a radio station developed app to become visible on their app store.

Connected GM dashboardI am also hearing that Ford will base the next-generation Sync system on the Blackberry QNX technology and move away from using the Microsoft Windows platform. Apparently using the QNX system will be less expensive than licensing Microsoft technology and will improve the flexibility and speed of the next Sync system. Ford has been receiving a growing number of customer complaints about the Microsoft Sync system who report the touch screen is not responsive. Blackberry’s QNX software can be found in cars made by Audi, Volkswagen and BMW.

GM, Volkswagen and Audi are all promising Web connections in their cars, including Wi-Fi hot spots for tablets and laptops, but none were on display in Toronto. The person I spoke to at Audi told me they have a SIM card they need to insert to make this active, but until they get CRTC permission this feature will not be offered in Canada. Both General Motors and Audi will be selling 4G LTE-connected cars before the end of 2014, but this may only be in the USA, and the impact of 4G in cars could be far reaching, because it aids both entertainment, including live video streaming, and better navigation with improved real time traffic information. This may also mean that your address book on your phone will be searchable on your car’s screen and selecting a location will enable your GPS system to take you there. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the major Canadian cell phone companies spent 5.3 billion dollars in the last round of cellular spectrum auction to get access to the 700 MHz band of wireless airwaves. This is considered to be a higher quality of spectrum able to travel greater distances, penetrate buildings more easily, and handle vast amounts of data at higher speeds.

At the Detroit Autoshow, the big three American automakers demonstrated their latest high-tech features. In addition to its 4G connectivity, GM is rolling out new applications including iHeartRadio, the Weather Channel and NPR. Chrysler showed off Ram trucks and Jeep SUVs with built-in Internet connections that allow drivers to seek services or information that show up on an 8.4 inch (21 cm) dashboard touch screen. While the same models were on display in Toronto these features were conspicuously absent. GM officials did tell me that they are offering similar GPS map systems in the Canadian models that are voice activated so if you say “where is the nearest coffee shop” it will pull up a list of coffee shops and allow you to select one and then navigate to your preferred cup of Joe. We can expect to see more real time traffic data on these screens and perhaps offers and incentives to stop into nearby retail stores to purchase goods or services. Lexus is already offering a subscription-based personal assistant service that will book restaurants for you or make reservations at the theatre. They can also remotely unlock your car, send destination directions to your phone, and even warn you via a text message should you exceed the speed limit.

By 2017, 25% of all automakers will earn money from e-commerce transactions drivers make from their car. A recent study found that 22% of U.S. vehicle owners say they want to make in-car purchases of songs, audio books and movies for their passengers. Automakers want a cut of these transactions because it will occur on their device platform. The possibility of automakers increasing their profit margins is why they are pouring billions of dollars into developing connected cars, according to the Center For Automotive Research.

At CES, Google announced an alliance with GM, Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and chipmaker Nvidia Corp. to bring the Android operating system to cars. Apple is already working with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, GM, Nissan, Honda and others to bring its iOS operating system to cars through devices such as the iPhone.

By 2018, one in five cars on the road will be “self-aware” and able to discern and share information on their mechanical health, their global position, and status of their surroundings. “Consumers are increasingly looking for solutions that allow them to stay connected to their digital lives wherever they are,” said Thilo Koslowski, auto analyst for researcher Gartner Inc. “In the future, your car may actually tell you to stay in bed 30 minutes longer because the traffic situation isn’t as bad as it usually is,” Koslowski said. “Your car can talk to your alarm clock and reset it 30 minutes later so you can stay in bed without doing anything.”

Auto and technology companies are battling over a slice of coveted radio waves, with carmakers arguing the potential for lifesaving crash-avoidance systems should take precedence over more Wi-Fi for Web data and video. Regulators will need to balance the desire to reduce the 30,000 deaths that occur on U.S. highways each year against the needs of data-hungry businesses and consumers, as the shrinking amount of open spectrum leaves little room for new uses that don’t bump up against others. On February 13, Google, Microsoft and Comcast joined together to announce a new advocacy group, WiFiForward, to push for expanded access to airwaves.

Automakers say they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars developing technology using their airwaves that will let cars talk to each other and with highway sensors at short range. They’ll be able to let drivers know when two vehicles are approaching an intersection simultaneously or about to collide in adjacent lanes, or if they’re approaching a vehicle ahead too quickly. The systems could be installed in new cars, at a cost of about $100 per vehicle, or sold as aftermarket devices.

By 2015, all cars in Europe must be equipped with eCall, a system that automatically contacts emergency services and directs them to the vehicle location in the event of a serious crash. This is similar to the GM product OnStar that has been available in North America for several years. This type of system may become mandatory in vehicles in North America and other countries within a few years.

Picking up your new car may require the dealer to spend more time training you on the car’s advanced technology. Last week one of my neighbours picked up a new Mercedes Benz and told me he has three appointments spread over two weeks so the dealer can train him on the technology that is on his new car. Expect to see more how-to videos and help screens as part of your car’s information system.

One of the great debates raging currently in the automotive industry is the question of built in or brought in and which is the best way to connect the car to the web. I regularly connect my iPhone via a USB cable to my vehicle’s entertainment system so I can listen to out of market radio stations via apps or Tuned In Radio. We recently purchased a new Toyota Camry Hybrid for my wife and the functions and features offered on this new car verses my 2007 BMW are impressive. It was a simple task to pair my phone to the Toyota and now when I get into the car my phone is automatically connected to the entertainment system via Bluetooth. I can access the last 10 numbers I dialed via the touch screen and play music that is stored on my iPhone. It also means I can listen to radio stations from all over the world. I still have to select the station on my phone, but it may not be too long before some of my iPhone’s apps will be available on the car’s touch screen to make it even more convenient. I can report that the audio experience of listening to radio stations via my iPhone is decent most of the time, but I do get drop outs and occasionally a lost connection. Also, while I was initially excited about listening to a radio station from England, Australia or Germany, I found I also have to balance the requirement of knowing what is going on locally, so from time to time I tune to terrestrial stations to catch the latest traffic, and weather and frequently find myself wanting to listen to a news story that is being teased.

What will be interesting moving forward is who pays for what. Consumers are used to a one-time purchase for a vehicle, but in this new connected world may be required to also pay a monthly roaming or data fee. Perhaps your car will be added as a device to your existing mobile phone bill.

AppsAnother question that needs to be resolved is how many apps on a car’s dashboard will be allowed. I try to keep my iPhone to just 4 screens (36 apps) and from time to time have to make the decision as to which app I delete when I want to add a new one. Having access to lots of screens on the car’s entertainment system could be a distraction and cause accidents if the driver is allowed to scroll or move between screens looking for a particular app. Indications from the people I spoke to at the Autoshow are that car manufacturers will be very cautious about what they allow to show up on the dashboard, and government regulators may want to legislate this as well. I did speak to one manufacturer who told me that they will make Facebook and Twitter accounts available on their in car entertainment system starting in late 2014.

So we already have vehicles in 2014 that slow down or brake when they sense danger and with the improvements in GPS systems there may come a time when hands-free driving is a reality. We may also see self-driving cars in our lifetime which will mean the driver will have lots of time to browse apps,  check email or do office work while the car worries about getting the vehicle to the desired destination safely. Google has had a fleet of about a dozen self-driving test cars since 2010 that have collectively driven more than 500,000 miles without crashing in beta tests. By the way, if you watch the movie “The Internship” there is a scene at the Google Campus where the Google Car drives by with no one it in and it catches Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn by surprise.

Google has been involved with the connected car project for a while now, but to take its efforts in car connectivity even further, in January this year they announced the formation of the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), that aims to boost the uptake of its Android operating system in cars. The OAA is also working towards developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device in the near future.

Apple has its ‘iOS in The Car’ (iOSitC) initiative aimed at allowing iOS owners to use their Apple devices inside the car for performing functions such as playing music, displaying maps and dictating messages. Several car manufacturers have shown interest in this and Honda has already announced that the 2014 Civic and the 2015 Fit models in the US and Canada will feature iOSitC integration through the HondaLink service – their cloud-based in-car connectivity system. iPhone in the Car knows when you’re leaving home or work and will automatically display directions, traffic conditions and your ETA.  Siri will be used to handle calls, play your voicemail and even return the calls and text messages you miss.  You’ll be able to listen to iTunes music and perhaps iRadio as well as using any third party apps to stay entertained.  Finally, you’ll be able to get directions easily through Maps or any other navigation apps like Google Maps.

But where does radio fit into all this? All the vehicles I saw at the Toronto Autoshow had AM, FM and many had HD Radio all prominently displayed on the in-dash screen or via the traditional looking radio console. But there are some who feel that unless the radio industry is more proactive and works with Auto manufactures, the radio that typically occupies some important real estate on the car dashboard may soon be replaced with something else altogether, especially in Canada where we cannot seem to make up our minds about which HD Radio platform will be the standard. In late February (2014), 34 automakers publicly announced plans to incorporate HD Radio in more than 170 models by year-end, with more than 80 models featuring HD Radio receivers as standard equipment. This includes Acura, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jaguar, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mini USA, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Ram, Rolls-Royce, Scion, SRT, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class with HD Radio is already available in the Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

Subaru announced at the recent Chicago Autoshow that it will offer HD Radio in all 2015 Legacys. The Legacy is the third Subaru vehicle to offer HD Radio as a standard feature along with the BRZ and WRX. The vehicle is expected to arrive at dealers during this summer of. Hyundai had their top of the line Genesis sedan on display in Toronto and it comes with HD Radio as a standard feature. Hyundai will also incorporate Artist Experience on select systems, allowing listeners to view images such as album art on their radio displays in their 2015 models. The Genesis is the fourth Hyundai vehicle to offer HD Radio as a standard feature along with the Equus, Azera, and Santa Fe. Canada needs to get on board with HD Radio or we will be left behind. While we know that HD Radio does not have the coverage of FM we still need to do something.

Conclusion: From my research and from visiting the Toronto Automotive Show, it is clear that the cars being sold today have better voice activation controls and offer lots more standard or optional safety features. But what they do not have at this moment is the ability to be connected 24/7 and provide the passengers with access to data and rich content like streaming movies that consumers now get via their cell phone being somehow connected to the vehicle. So the notion of the connected car is still not a reality in Canada today as far as I can tell. However, I suspect it will not be too many years before that changes. The Mercedes expert told me that they are offering docking stations on some models so you can fix an iPad to the back of the front seats that allows passengers in the back to watch movies and other content already stored on those devices. The battle for the eyes and ears of the in-car driver and passenger is heating up, and the radio industry needs to be proactive if we are to protect our advantage.