Automobiles will soon be linking up with servers in the cloud to enable everything from crowdsourced pothole detection, personalized radio stations, video selections that include YouTube and even video streams from the front windows of other cars.
A consortium of tech companies called ng Connect showed off a functional concept version of a Toyota Prius on Tuesday that includes multiple LCD screens, an app platform similar to the one for the iPhone, and a high speed LTE internet connection that promises to make 3G feel like dial-up. The set-up turns the car into a Wi-Fi hot spot, plays movies on demand, and lets passengers frag each other in multi-player games.
The LTE connection is fast enough to stream four high-definition movies to four different screens in a single car, according to Alcatel-Lucent vice president Derek Kuhn. While still a telecom dream, LTE is backwards-compatible with today’s 3G networks. It also relies on a single standard, which will hopefully make nationwide rollout cheaper and faster than 3G has been.
ng Connect is comprised of a motley crew of tech companies: the networking company Alcatel-Lucent, Atlantic Records, QNX Software Systems, Toyota, geek gadget company chumby and Kabillion. Their LTE Connected Car project is only a prototype now, but the group expects its technology to roll out within the next two to three years.
ng Connect’s system leverages two major trends — cloud computing and mobile applications – to provide safety, navigation, and entertainment features that already go a long way towards justifying its “next-generation” moniker.
The high-bandwidth connection enables processor-intensive applications like voice recognition — a crucial safety feature in gadget-ridden cars — to happen on the server side, where voice commands can be processed more efficiently. And that’s just the beginning of what cloud computing will do for drivers, according to the ng Connect group.
“This car also is a sensor,” explained Kuhn. For instance, if your car’s temperature and moisture sensors determine that the surface temperature of the road is below freezing and that the road is wet, it can upload that information into the cloud so that the drivers behind you know to take it a little easier around the turns. It’s like a crowdsourced version of what traffic helicopters do today.
Entertainment-wise, the system offers Pandora’s personalized streaming radio, Atlantic Records’ apps that pull in an artist’s latest tweets and songs, YouTube and a movie streaming service that remembers where each viewer left off. Future applications could even use the vehicle’s moisture sensor to suggest that you play Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, according to Kuhn.
Lest you worry about drivers being distracted, the system cuts off the entertainment stream to the driver’s monitor as soon as the car is in motion.
A camera embedded in the rearview mirror captures the road ahead, letting you pipe a video stream to the cloud. This will let you see the view from a connected car a quarter-mile ahead of you, so you can find out what’s causing that traffic jam up ahead. The system can also sense that traffic is becoming more compressed, warning you to slow down before you encounter a traffic compression.
Of course, America’s love affair with the car has a lot to do with freedom, and some could bristle about this sort of connectivity compromising their privacy.
“Let’s be open, there are privacy issues,” said Kuhn. “But we think we can abstract it enough that it’s not Dan driving.”
“It’s a nameless entity, right?” added Dan Dodge, president and CEO of QNX software, which developed the Flash Lite-based platform used by the system, who was seated in the driver’s seat for our demonstration. “It’s an identifier that would change every time you get into your car. It’s randomly assigned and has no idea who you are – it’s just a moving dot, and that’s key.”
However, Dodge added, applications that need to know who you are, such as Pandora, can do so without broadcasting any personally-identifying information to the cloud.
“The other exciting thing about this is municipalities,” said Dodge. “If your car hits a pothole, you can have a real-time signal go back to the municipality and they can see potholes appearing in real-time and send out a truck.” (Or start ignoring them as soon as possible, as the case may be.)
The losers in all of this: satellite navigation and radio. They appear to have about three years, tops, before personalized applications and cloud computing make them look as outdated as black-and-white television.
“Once you assume constant connectivity, the whole mindset changes of where you partition what’s in the car and what’s out in the cloud,” said Dodge. “Other than this nice, rich touch screen, a lot of the computing power has been moved onto the cloud, so the car of the future may be physically cheaper to build.”
Price will likely be a crucial factor in the success of this and other connected car platforms. ng Connect chose the Prius rather than a luxury model because research indicated that the segment of the population most interested in connected cars with advanced features is not the same that buys high-end luxury models. Rather, it’s young families and older singles who see connected electronics as a necessity.