Welcome to the future of connected cars.
How our cars talk to the internet - and how we talk to our cars - continues to evolve. And it's about to get a lot better. Ford is putting a Wi-Fi router inside next year's Sync-equipped vehicles that will rebroadcast any 3G card's connection. Audi is experimenting with fingertip touch inputs. BMW is already trying to figure out how to put a "monster" antenna on their cars to support the faster next-generation LTE wireless standard "without putting this ugly lump on our cars".
But it's the little ol' iPhone, with its versatile, optional, liability-shifting bundle of apps that may making the biggest difference in how we use the internet in our cars in the coming years.
Drive off the lot today in a new Sync-equipped Ford, pair your Bluetooth phone, and you've got a data connection to the internet - sort of.
Sync uses technology from a company called Airbiquity. Their service sends data over the voice connection of your phone - not a data plan or SMS - using tech similar to an old-school analogue modem. It's rather slick, as hacks go, allowing Sync-connected cars to get data anywhere there is mobile phone coverage, even if there isn't data service offered by the carrier.
But I can't seem to track down the raw speed of an Airbiquity connection - and given both the nature of the technology as well as the amount of data a current Sync system displays (sports scores, stock prices, simple phone number lookups) - I can't imagine its throughput compares to a modern 3G service. It's a robust platform for basic connectivity, but it's not Real Internet.
The new Sync fixes that - or will as soon as Ford starts taking advantage of the higher-speed connections. Jason Johnson, an engineer at Ford who helped develop in the in-car Wi-Fi system, was cagey when I asked him when we could expect Sync to piggyback on a internet connection from a third-party 3G stick, saying only that "it broadens the horizons for applications in the future." So strangely, while the new Sync will help you get other devices in the car online, it won't be using that connection for its own data, nor use its Wi-Fi router to talk to, say, your home network. Yet.
Upscale automakers have been taking a different tack, offering optional connectivity packages like Autonet Mobile, or, as BMW has offered since 2007, build in connectivity at the factory.
Like a laptop with a built-in 3G modem, however, these cars suffer from a distinct lack of modularity. Want to upgrade when LTE starts to come online next year? Better buy a new car.
And worse, the integrated systems, even though they're connecting to the same wireless internet as every other device, are severely restricted. The $US200-a-year BMW Search service can bring down Google Maps, local fuel prices and grades, even weather forecasts - using a "major GSM provider" in the United States which, although BMW would not confirm, is probably AT&T - but there's nary a web browser to be found.
"Texting while driving won't seem like a big deal," laughs BMW's Fran Dance, "when people are YouTubing while driving." Dance (no relation) handles telematics for BMW in North America, so he's been thinking a lot about not just how drivers will use the internet in their cars, but how they shouldn't.
"We can't be searching eBay for my favourite Afghan scarf," says Dance. "I really shouldn't be googling too much stuff or reading too much text. BMW recognises that the driver is still the most important person in the car."
BMW has been doing car computers for years - the new ones are even, by all reports, good. But it took several years for BMW to balance the utility, convenience and safety factors in their iDrive system.
We'll continue to see development in this area, with bigger touch screens, faster, more accurate voice control (something on which Sync heavily relies), even biometric measurements like Toyota's eye monitoring system.
Apps, Apps, Apps. Also: Apps.
Consider the App. But what will our car computers be controlling? More and more, it's looking like iPhones.
For certain, a limited amount of sanctioned applications will be coming from manufacturers to run directly on a car's computer. Ford has let owners add 911 Assist and Vehicle Health Report apps to existing Sync systems by copying them over on USB keys. BMW is exploring the idea of map updates that would allow drivers to turn on audio tours of historic places, matching up museum-style guidebooks triggered by GPS location.
"We would be very foolish to create our own version of Pandora or Rhapsody," says Dance. Better to let Pandora build their own BMW client, for instance, which BMW can then vet, sanction and install.
Or at least that's what I thought Dance meant, until he explained: "You can listen to Pandora in your BMW today on your iPhone." Well sure. I can listen to Pandora in any car that has an auxiliary input. But BMW is working with companies - including Apple - to allow their iPhone applications to interface with a car's iDrive system. Pandora might be running on an iPhone or BlackBerry, but when plugged into the docking station of the BMW, it could be controlled with all of the car's integrated buttons and doodads.
Ford is taking it a step further, going as far funding the creation of iPhone apps, that mesh with the in-car Sync system. Next year, Ford will open up the Sync API to other developers, making it possible for third-parties to write applications like "FollowMe", an iPhone + Sync app which allows "friends to follow a lead vehicle to a location without the need to physically follow each other, thanks to GPS turn-by-turn directions transmitted from the leader to the followers and read aloud to the drivers."
BMW is taking a hybrid route with its Mini brand. The Mini "Connected Buddy" concept, slurping up music data from a connected iPhone and then building its own "Genius"-style visual map of artists. [Pictured above.]There's the requisite Twitter and Facebook apps. But most of the work is being done by the iPhone, not the car. The screen and controls in the Mini become an extension of the iPhone.
Apps on Phones Protects from Lawsuits
In a large portion of the United States, it's illegal to have a television in your car that the driver can see, a regulation that was put in place long before smartphones and GPS units were even dreamed up. There are considerable liability issues an auto manufacturer has to consider if one were to, say, let you run Firefox in your dashboard.
But by tacitly pushing in-car application development to smartphones - even if those smartphones might so happen to be connected to the car - it puts the liability back in the driver's hands.
There's little danger of smartphone literally crashing the car, either. Sync talks to the same telemetric and diagnostic system that the car's other computers do, for instance, albeit in a one-way polling. It can ask for data, but it can't, say, reprogram the valve timing to allow for greater fuel economy or allow your Focus to run on water even though we all know that's totally possible. More conservative companies like Toyota don't even wire the entertainment system into the same telemetric and sensor packages as the car-control computers.
The Easy Way Out
Despite what you might think, I didn't expect the iPhone to play a big part in this story when I first started looking into it. As a music player, sure. Perhaps even eventually as a data option for more modest cars without built-in connectivity.
But using the power of smartphones is clearly where the attention is focused in the connected car industry right now - and I don't think it's such a bad thing. The pace of innovation will be faster for developers if our cars become giant peripherals for our phones, bristling with sensors and data, than if we waited for every manufacturer to make their own monolithic platform. (And while the iPhone is certainly getting the most attention, I have no doubt that BlackBerry and Android phones will get all the attention they deserve if they keep doing well.)
I mean, Sync is built on Windows CE, which may not be the dog in the embedded space it has become on mobile phones, but is still, you know, Windows CE. Jason Johnson was quick to underline how Ford has a healthy relationship with Microsoft (of course) but also how much of the Sync system was engineered on top of Windows CE by Ford.
Yet if Ford does what they're planning to do, that Sync runs on top of CE won't even matter. As long as it plays nice with phones and sends them all the information their apps need, everyone will be happy. And better yet, the cars' capability will be upgraded along with the phones'.
In a couple of years, I won't even have to read the turn-by-turn directions to Brian aloud, because his car will already know exactly what my iPhone knows.
Photo compliments of Mr Tom Arthur.