Compared with the electronic wizardry found in our homes and offices, even the most advanced cars built today seem stuck in the Stone Age. Like a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, spending time in the car means abandoning modern advances like Wi-Fi and iTunes for comparatively ancient technologies like satellite radio, in-dash CD players, and tiny nav screens suction-cupped to the windshield.
It won’t stay that way. In the very near future, your dashboard may soon become as versatile as your laptop. Ford’s Sync, an option starting at $395, is an already available, multifaceted platform made by Ford and Microsoft. And Kia is currently rolling out a similar, Microsoft-developed system in the 2011 Sorento and Sportage called Uvo. The next iteration of Sync grows into an integrated media hub called MyFord Touch, while in-car Wi-Fi (WiFi adapter via USB shown below, left) lets drivers take the Internet along with them. In the future, cars may not only entertain us but could improve driver awareness and reduce distractions, and the advent of electric vehicles will forever change how automobiles connect with infrastructure.
Currently, in-car technology is hardware-based, with upgrades requiring new physical installation. It’s pretty simple: To play satellite radio or use navigation, you buy an aftermarket unit or purchase the option from the automaker. In the near future, however, upgrades will merely require new software.
The near future has already arrived at Ford, where the aforementioned MyFord Touch platform is making its debut on the 2011 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX (where it’s called MyLincoln Touch) and on the 2012 Ford Focus. Just as different apps change an iPhone from a music player to a phone to a restaurant guide, MyFord Touch alters the entertainment system, instrument cluster, voice commands, and steering-wheel switches depending on which software application a driver chooses to run.
That means adding navigation to a MyFord Touch–equipped vehicle doesn’t mean buying a whole new device but only requires a visit to the automaker’s upcoming app store. “With MyFord Touch, you’ve already got an eight-inch touch screen (shown below). All you need is the navigation application,” says Jim Buczkowski, director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford.
Aside from the estimated $1500 cost (according to an industry analyst) of the MyFord Touch hardware—USB port, touch screen, and memory storage—the system won’t break the bank for automakers because it relies on technology that’s already standard in the computer industry. Even in the absence of in-car Internet, some software apps could be manually installed using MyFord Touch’s USB port.
Hello Pandora, Goodbye CD Changer
Most applications are only as good as the data they can access, and when platforms such as MyFord Touch aren’t connected to the Internet, their usefulness is severely limited. Internet in cars is currently in its infancy, with a few manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, and Ford experimenting with it in their latest models. But in the future, most new cars will become rolling Wi-Fi hot spots, either sharing an Internet connection with a “smartphone” (called “tethering”) or with a separate, dedicated data plan.
In five years, nearly 25 percent of cars will be connected to the Internet, according to iSuppli telematics analyst Richard Robinson. That means big changes for in-car entertainment. Just how big? “What you need to be thinking of is your computer pre- and post-dialup,” Robinson says. “How useful would your laptop be without being hooked up to the Internet?”
Since a mouse and a keyboard would be difficult to use at highway speeds, the most advanced setups will tailor the Web for an in-car experience. When connected to the Internet, MyFord Touch takes advantage of its voice-recognition software to use specially designed applications that allow drivers and passengers to listen to Internet music via Pandora and keep in touch with social networks like Twitter while on the road. Pandora (shown below), which is free and allows users to configure their own music “stations,” will likely make a serious dent in satellite-radio subscriptions.
Wi-Fi’s potential, says Ford’s Buczkowski, will be limited only to the imaginations of software developers. If kids want to watch videos streamed from the Internet in the back seat (the only place it’s currently legal in all 50 states in a moving car) or a passenger wants to search for the best lunch nearby, it’s possible. “It’s not that we can find the one thing that fits everybody, but that it can be adjusted to whoever is in the vehicle,” he says. Mercedes now offers an optional SplitView screen ($700, shown below) in its S-class and CL-class vehicles. Using the same dashboard-mounted screen employed by the navigation and stereo, the display can project two separate images—one to the driver and a different one to the passenger. The passenger can watch a movie while the driver sees only the regular display, but the system is still prohibited in 14 states. Despite this, other carmakers will likely introduce similar systems in the future.
It’s easy to think that these new technologies will become driver distractions, but Buczkowski says that a clever text-to-speech interface will keep drivers from tweeting themselves into trees. “We are very focused on minimizing driver distraction,” he says. “We’re going to leverage very heavily our voice-recognition system because it allows you to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.” With 19 states (and counting) restricting how drivers can access cell phones, text messages, and the Internet from behind the wheel, it seems that a hands-free voice-recognition scheme may become how we interact with our cars.
More importantly, a connected car can communicate with other vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure as an active safety measure. “It’s like a heartbeat that’s sent out from every car, with status information,” says iSuppli’s Robinson. “If there’s a red light ahead and the car is going too fast, you’ll be sent a message and the car will stop you from crashing into an intersection.”
Such advanced systems also require a big investment in infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being implemented. In Japan, Nissan is already testing an in-car system with various applications: It can let drivers know where other cars have had accidents, preview hidden road hazards, and sense the cell-phone signals of pedestrians to alert drivers of their presence.
Writer: KEITH BARRY
Published: APR 8, 2010