Feature Story

The Future of Connected Cars: What to do With All That Data?

by Steve Wildstrom

A look at the changes ahead for auto makers and drivers as cars get more connected to the rest of the world.

The modern automobile has become a data collection machine. As you drive down the road, sensors in the car’s various systems report your speed, engine RPM, steering angle, brake pressure, and myriad other bits of information to the computers, perhaps several dozen of them, that control the vehicle’s functions.

But there are a couple of big problems with the data as it exists today. One is that most of the information collected is used, for example, in the computer that controls the traction control system, and immediately discarded. Second, sensors and processors in cars communicate over a variety of proprietary data buses that often cannot talk to each other, let alone the outside world.

This is starting to change as cars become, as Helder Antunes, managing director in Cisco’s connected industries business unit, puts it, “rolling data centers.” One change that will come to cars is most or all of the proprietary communication will be replaced with an internet protocol network. This won't happen very quickly, since car design cycles are measured in years, not months, and automakers are rightly very conservative about changes in systems that can affect safety. But the promise of lower costs, greater reliability, and reduced weight is too tempting to pass up.

Another change coming is that cars are going to get connected to the rest of the world, becoming part of the rapidly growing internet of things. Today, if cars communicate at all, they typically do it through the internet connection of a mobile phone, linked to the car through Bluetooth. The major exception is General Motors’ OnStar system, which has built-in cellular capabilities. In the future, however, cars are likely to use a form of Wi-Fi called Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) to send data to roadside sensors and to each other.

In the meantime, the search is on for ways to make cars’ data capabilities more useful to drivers. This has showed up first in the information and entertainment systems. Almost any car built in the last few years can get entertainment content such as the Pandora internet music service by plugging a mobile phone into the audio system, but many models now provide full integration, with programming information and touch-screen controls on an in-dash display through systems such as Ford’s Sync or Cadillac’s Cue.

Car makers are also beginning to replace navigation systems’ static maps, usually loaded from DVDs, with constantly updated maps, points of interest, and real-time traffic information from the internet. For example, Hyundai and Kia are partnering with Google to bring Google Maps to cars, while Toyota is working with Nokia to bring its Here mapping system to cars sold in Europe and the Middle East.

 To speed the search for expanded applications, car companies are turning to outside programmers. In January, GM held a “connected car hackathon” where developers were invited to try to create apps over a weekend. Ford has launched a program to encourage third party app development for its Sync AppLink platform, including providing developers with hardware that simulates the in-car systems.

Ford is taking a considerable step further with a program to encourage the creation of applications that take advantage of all that data that cars generate. Since cars don't yet communicate that data externally, the key to the system is an interface unit that plugs into the computer diagnostic (OBD II) port on selected Ford models and taps into data on up to 20 different automotive systems, from engine power to brake pedal position to door locks and headlight function. The read-only interface feeds the information to an Android device. Accompanying open-source software helps a developer create applications that can use the information.

What kind of applications might this effort produce? That’s up to the imagination of developers, says T.J. Giuli, research team leader at Ford’s new Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto. “We want to create a community around this,” says Giuli. “We are very interested in open-source hardware.”

Of course, there’s a long road from pounding out some code based on OpenXC to actually getting an application into a car. Because of safety, regulatory, and liability concerns, any software that runs in vehicles has to undergo rigorous testing first. Any hardware that might result from the project would have to be subjected to even greater tests of reliability and durability.  “Say you were to develop something that enables vehicle to vehicle data communications,” says Giuli. “Anything like that would have to last for the life of the vehicle.”


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