With New Broadcom Tech Along for the Ride, Connectivity in Cars Gets Speedier, More Robust

Bluetooth technology in today’s new cars is almost a given. Car buyers have an expectation that their smartphones will connect to their in-car audio systems for hands-free chatting and music playback.

All 12 of the world’s major car manufacturers offer Bluetooth hands-free calling systems in their vehicles. But far fewer of the autos rolling off assembly lines today — from 10 to 20 percent — come equipped with Wi-Fi technology, in-part because consumers have yet to discover the features that a Wi-Fi connection can unleash. Fewer still employ Bluetooth Smart, a low-power flavor of the ubiquitous, short-range connection that enables drivers to do more with their devices while preserving precious battery power.

In five years, some 60 percent of the new cars in the U.S. will have both technologies, according to a recent study by the IEEE. By 2025, the two technologies are expected to be in just about every new car to roll off the assembly line.

Awareness for in-car connectivity has seen a slow build over the past few years, but automotive technologies are expected to generate headlines at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where about 125 auto tech companies are expected to cover more than 140,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Las Vegas Convention Center and surrounding hotels. Carmakers are already looking ahead, designing in-car communications hubs that will transform the full automotive (as opposed to just driving) experience. From BMW to Hyundai to Mercedes, automakers see the future: a consumer market that will demand ubiquitous, reliable connectivity for on-the-go information and entertainment. 5G WiFi is one of the keys that will unlock these new experiences.

Thilo Koslowski, vice president and analyst at market research firm Gartner predicted in a recent blog post that “the automobile will eventually become more innovative and cooler than smartphones and excite drivers and passengers in immersive experiences. Expect small and large technology companies to step up their efforts and interests in one of the fastest growing connected device platforms.”

As those companies start stepping up their games, Broadcom will be ready with a suite of wireless connectivity technologies including 5G WiFi, Bluetooth Smart Ready and Android integration.

5G WiFi in the Car

Expect the real explosion to begin in just a few short years, with the rollout of the 2016 models. That’s when Broadcom’s new BCM89335, which brings both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi into a single chip that has been designed and tested with automotive standards in mind, is expected to jumpstart infotainment applications in cars. Combining the two technologies into a single chip helps the two radios avoid interference, explained Richard Barrett, Broadcom director of product marketing for wireless connectivity in the Mobile and Wireless Group.

“A lot of engineering goes into that co-existence on mobile devices,” he said. “We’re bringing that same innovation to the car.”

Bluetooth Smart Ready technology, which allows products to sip power at an incremental rate, will play a vital role in enabling connectivity between the car and wearable tech with the ability to monitor biometric indicators such as monitoring driver fatigue, blood alcohol content and glucose levels.

CES 2014 Connected Car5G WiFi, meanwhile, offers a fat pipe – enough bandwidth to stream different types of HD content to multiple devices simultaneously. Coupled with screen-casting protocols like Mirrorlink (see related post) and Miracast, it’s conceivable that one kid in the backseat could stream cartoons from a tablet to the headrest screen while another watches YouTube videos on a smartphone. Because 5G WiFi is also dual-band, applications can run all the high-bandwidth, data-heavy content on the less-congested 5Ghz channel, improving performance and reducing latency, compared to legacy Wi-Fi connections that run over the 2.4GHz channel.

As power-sipping Bluetooth Smart and fast 5G WiFi find their way into more cars, the potential for a new sort of experience becomes more evident. Consider what the mobile app ecosystem has done for smartphones and tablets and translate that to the automotive world. Making the in-car infotainment system part of the mobile app ecosystem paves the way for developers to create new, highly customized driving experiences.

With the right software and a Bluetooth connection, a code or other identifier on your smartphone could turn the handset into a digital key that would unlock the doors, start the car, adjust the seats and mirrors, set heating, air-conditioning and ventilation preferences, and program all of your personal settings for favorite stations, frequent destinations and more.

Likewise, a car that sits idle in the garage overnight could tap into the home Wi-Fi network to upload new music playlists, the morning’s podcasts and the latest information about road conditions on the route to work. It could also sync with special monitoring apps that would provide software updates from the carmaker, generate car diagnostic reports or even locate your car in an underground parking garage.

Android Hits the Road

It seems like a natural fit that the smartphone operating system with some 80 percent of the market – Google’s Android — would make its way to the car.

Earlier this month, Broadcom announced that it optimized its Bluetooth software stack for Android, helping pave the way for greater interoperability, improved audio quality for hands-free calls and streaming music. With the software, Bluetooth can bridge in-car infotainment systems with Android smartphones, tablets and wearable devices, such as a smartwatch or fitness monitor.

“Auto makers and tier one suppliers are looking for robust, feature-rich and flexible operating systems that are relatively painless and easy to deploy,” Broadcom’s Barrett said.

So What’s Up with Wearables?

Wearable computing devices – beginning with today’s fitness trackers and smart watches – also suggest new in-car applications.

“Anything that’s connected to your body can deliver a better experience if it’s connected to the car,” Barrett said. What if a connected watch or eyeglasses, for example, were able to detect when a driver is dozing off and prompt the car to take action?

It’s a trend that’s already happening, and likely to accelerate in the coming years. Nissan’s new Nismo racing watch connects to some Nissan cars via Bluetooth and monitors everything from the driver’s biometric data and driving habits to the car’s engine performance and fuel consumption. In addition to getting vehicle maintenance reminders, the Nismo’s “social speed” app even displays updates from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

Carmakers will always build cars that transport their occupants swiftly, safely and economically. Beyond that, they – along with chipmakers and app designers – are concentrating on ways to help drivers and passengers stay connected, informed and entertained along the way.

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Special Correspondent Fredric Paul is an award-winning writer, editor and content strategist who has spent his career covering the intersection of technology, business, and culture. His writing has appeared… More