Our smartphones follow us everywhere — the office, the kitchen, the couch, the bedroom — and keep us connected to the things that matter most. The idea of a (gasp!) dead zone with no connectivity is almost unthinkable. The most connected among us find ourselves getting “tech withdrawals” when we’re off the grid.
If the pace of consumer electronics improvements has taught us anything in the last decade, it’s that it doesn’t have to be this way — even in our cars. We’re headed toward staying connected all the time while on the road. To achieve that, automakers and other players in the car ecosystem are working to bring the most efficient, reliable and speedy connectivity technologies to more of today’s drivers.
Right now, one of the most promising technologies in the automotive space is around Ethernet — but not the blue-wire flavor you’re already familiar with. This new Ethernet standard has the potential to shuttle all types of data through a car’s different systems to deliver safety and infotainment features to the masses. There’s “eyes free” control of your texts and emails, smart sensing of road hazards, live updates about open parking spaces and even real-time uploading to the cloud of critical information about location, traffic, fuel consumption and speed for analysis and interpretation.
Those visions for the Connected Car will come to life at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, where more than 100,000 square feet of convention space will be filled with exhibits from 110 different automotive technology companies. If CES represents a first look at technologies that will make it to market a few years, then carmakers are putting their research and development dollars in the right place. By 2017, nearly 90 percent of new vehicles in the U.S. will be of the connected variety, according to a study from ABI Research.
The plethora of new in-car technologies and features that will be on display at this year’s CES can be roughly divided into three categories:
There’s sure to be a flurry of headlines related to automotive safety and the new features that will do everything from taking control of the car to helping a driver parallel park to applying the brakes in an emergency situation. While backup camera mechanisms are practically de rigueur, the next generation technology is capable of innovative ways to prevent accidents: an alert when something enters the car’s blind spot, or when the car drifts lanes without signaling, and cameras that build a 3D image of the road ahead so drivers can more easily spot hazards. Some cars could be outfitted with infrared cameras that display a night-vision enhanced view of the road on the dashboard and even sensors that will know when tiny fingers are resting on a window and will disable the roll-up mechanism.
When was the last time you were inside a car that did not have a smartphone or tablet riding shotgun? Each model year, manufacturers are able to find new ways to connect the features and apps of your favorite device to your car. Ford has made early strides in this department with the music-oriented Sync and MyFord Mobile, and other carmakers like Toyota, MINI and Chrysler quickly followed suit. In fact, Chrysler made waves this year when it announced built-in hands-free and eyes-free integration with Apple’s famous iPhone digital assistant Siri. Other popular connected apps — such as the user-generated traffic data app Waze — could see integration with the dashboard.
By turning a phone’s data connection into a roving wireless hotspot, a car could connect its dashboard display to streaming media services like Pandora, Google Music or iCloud while on-the-go (not to mention provide updates in the form of tweets, Facebook posts and, of course, sports scores and stock prices). Today, dashboard software gets updated only occasionally, if at all, through a visit to the dealership. With in-car Internet access, drivers could finally get access to quick software patches, diagnose problems and repairs, and get updates for infotainment services, too.
Under the Hood
Automakers and car systems manufacturers who opt in to the idea of cars wired up with twisted pair Ethernet cables (known as BroadR-Reach Ethernet) have an opportunity to innovate in ways that are less obvious to the consumer but make a major impact on the bottom line. Cars wired with Broadcom’s BroadR-Reach Ethernet technology see a couple of big benefits over the current mainstream cable technology (called low-voltage differential signaling, or LVDS). It costs less, reduces overall cabling weight and offers zippier data speeds. Ethernet also is less costly to maintain than today’s standard, giving mechanics easy access to data collection and system diagnostics for repairs and checkups. It is this access to massive amounts of data that will yield the most value for car owners, makers and repair specialists. Combine this data about the day-to-day behavior of a car with the computing power available in the cloud, and our cars will be navigating uncharted terrain safely and more efficiently for years to come.
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