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.
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.