It used to be that upgrading your car would involve a trip to the garage for a new set of alloy wheels, a paint-job or perhaps a souped-up sound system.

But those days could soon be over as an increasing number of cars connect to the web. In the same way as the smartphone was changed forever by the arrival of the app, car manufacturers are now betting on these small pieces of software to drive the future of the automobile. Soon, customising your wheels could be as simple as tapping your dashboard touchscreen to download the latest must-have app.

“We already see many cars that have Google onboard, and Facebook and Bloomberg updates,” says Sven Beiker, the executive director for the center for automotive research at Stanford University in the US.

But, he adds, apps could soon go a lot further than just letting you find your favourite music or communicating with your friends. By tapping into the mass of data your car produces, combined with the huge computing resources available on the web, apps could help save you – and everyone around you – fuel, time and money.

And this is not a distant dream, he says. The groundwork for the fully connected car is being laid down now and could be with us sooner than you think.

“Some people say that 2012 is the year when we will see a breakthrough in the connected car,” says Bieker.

‘Car talk’

Several manufacturers including Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Audi and most recently Honda already offer basic connected car systems that allow a vehicle to hook up to the web through mobile phone networks. They act as a portal to the net, but also provide practical benefits such as alerting the driver to collisions, or delays on the road ahead, and automatically finding new routes to avoid them.

At the moment, these tend to be the preserve of top-end vehicles. But that too is changing. According to research firm ABI Research, 60.1% of cars will be connected to the web by 2017, whilst in Europe and North America, the figure will be closer to 80%. Soon, cars without connectivity will be a rarity rather than the other way around.

One of the pioneering systems for in-car tech is Ford’s Sync, which connects your smartphone and MP3 player to the car's dashboard. It allows drivers to make telephone calls and control the car’s radio using their voice, amongst other things. It was developed with software giant Microsoft and was first released in 2007.

Like most of today’s systems, the software is essentially a way of connecting the car to your smartphone. But, in 2010, Ford made the first steps towards blurring the boundaries between the mobile and the automobile when it released the Ford Sync API (application programming interface). This piece of code allowed trusted third-party developers to tap into Sync so that they could write apps that could work with – and be controlled by – the system. One of the first was the internet radio app Pandora.

It is a model that is now used by several other manufacturers. For example, German car maker BMW recently announced that it would allow vetted third-party apps developed for Google’s Android phone software to work with its Connected Drive system (it already allowed the system to tap into some iPhone apps)

But developments like this are just the start, according to Beiker. Modern cars are incredibly sophisticated, he says, with up to 80 different computer control units that monitor everything from engine performance and braking, to direction of travel, velocity and road conditions. At the moment cars tend to keep this information to themselves. Sharing it could open up a whole new world of possibilities.

“We are talking about changing the car’s character from being introverted to being extroverted. So the car is just more talkative,” he says.

To make this a reality requires at least two important things to happen. First, car manufacturers need to make the data from their cars available, ideally in a standard format. And secondly, the data needs to be easily shared.

The first of these problems is again being tackled by manufacturers like Ford. Working with New York City-based developers Bug Labs, the car manufacturer has released a prototype system called OpenXC. Drivers install a small piece of hardware in their car which taps into the vehicles sensors and control units and spits them out in a format that can be read by compatible apps on Android.

“OpenXC allows us to investigate what developers can do when we present the car in the same way as they see a smartphone software platform,” said Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader for Ford Research and Innovation, when the system debuted earlier this year. The system has since been distributed to firms and universities and has already spawned its first “vehicle-aware” applications. 

One of the first was created by India's HCL Technologies and allows a driver to automatically update select contacts with his or her location. The idea is that by monitoring location and speed data from the vehicle, the app can determine if the driver will be late for a meeting and can then send an email or text message without any driver intervention.

That last bit is important. Car manufacturers are all too aware that they need to minimise distractions from these systems while driving, hence the common use of voice recognition. They maintain that many drivers already use web, communication and entertainment services in their cars, so these systems actually reduce the risk of distractions and increase safety. However, it is unlikely that it will be left to car makers to decide what is and isn’t appropriate. Already, regulators are beginning to scrutinise these systems and earlier this year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a report that recommended voluntary guidelines for car manufacturers to reduce the risk of distraction. 

‘Always on’

Assuming that an acceptable solution can be found, the second part of the puzzle that needs to fall into place is how data is shared. At the moment, most manufacturers use proprietary computer systems, meaning that data produced by one car manufacturer is basically of little use to another. This becomes problematic for third-party app developers who would need to rewrite their code for each and every producer. But Beiker says that could soon change.

“I am expecting to see more and more applications that communicate with the vehicle directly, through a standardised interface,” he says. “I can very well imagine that over the next couple of years car companies might open up their firewall a little more, and say ‘here is our app store’.”

One project attempting to solve the problem is the EU-sponsored Cooperatives Vehicle Infrastructure Systems project, which aims to develop a “universal communications module” that can read data from any vehicle. The project has already published the architecture of the system it hopes to use.

It envisages that data would be channelled in two ways: to other cars and over mobile connections and DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) networks – a wi-fi like technology that is currently used for electronic road toll connection, for example. Car-to-car communication could be useful in safety systems, for example, allowing a car to prevent a driver pulling out of a blind junction if another vehicle is approaching or forming the basis of a peer-to-peer collision warning system to spot and advise about hazards on the road ahead.

But the intention of the mobile and DSRC network is to build an “always-connected” communications channel between the car and the net. This opens up the possibility of each car sharing and consuming unique cuts of information. Obvious applications include streaming entertainment apps and software that can tap into the speed and direction of travel of a car to “crowdsource” traffic updates. This would benefit the driver by giving them personalised driving information, but would also allow the road network as a whole to become more intelligent, allowing traffic control systems to route cars around accidents, or divert traffic around congested areas. Further down the line, these systems could tap into a cars emissions data to allow pollution credit trading in real time, or automatically reserve parking spaces by calculating when you will arrive at your location.

Hack attack

An always-on connection – coupled with a standardised, machine-readable data format – also raises other intriguing possibilities, such as allowing vehicles to tap into the “cloud” – the vast amount of computing power available on the web. This could create a host of powerful, smarter apps. For example, in 2011, Ford announced a deal with the search giant Google to use the firm’s prediction algorithms to spot trends in large data sets. Ford's idea  would send a car’s information to Google's data centres. Over time, the algorithms would begin to predict where you are driving to every time you sit in the driver’s seat, depending on the time of day and your usual driving habits. This would allow it to determine the most fuel-efficient journey, with the best driving conditions and the least traffic.

Of course, as more and more cars begin to stream their telemetry, mobile networks could become overloaded. Fourth-generation cellphone systems will help, and there are already various initiatives, such as the NG Connected car programme and the 4G Venture Forum for Connected Cars, that aim to accelerate this technology. But the rise of the cloud-based app will could also spur the development of other clever connections with plenty of bandwidth. 

One idea is to use wi-fi. A system proposed recently by researchers from MIT, Georgetown University and the National University of Singapore showed how a fleet of wi-fi enabled cars could share limited wi-fi connections by shuffling data between them all, and using a select few cars to collect everyone’s data and upload it when it finds a hotspot. The system is theoretical at the moment, but it gives an indication of the kind of technology that could begin to hit cars in the future. 

Another problem that will need to be solved is security. Researchers have already demonstrated that control systems in cars are vulnerable to attack. But once data from those critical systems – like brakes and engines – is being streamed, read and processed on the net for real, it will be even more crucial to ensure it cannot be subverted by hackers.

However, if the history of smartphone apps is anything to go by, this kind of obstacle will not hold the technology back. Just four years ago smartphone app stores barely existed. Today, they serve up millions of apps and billions of downloads.

Time will tell whether adding the 80 or so million cars that are produced every year into the mix will shift it up a gear or stall on the driveway.

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