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About This Technology

Carmakers, electronics makers, wireless-service providers, and other industries are adapting to a new competitive landscape in which electronics increasingly defines the driving experience. Telematics—roughly, vehicle communications, computing, and controls—helps drivers and passengers to be efficient, safe, entertained, informed, and connected to other people. Connected-car technologies include onboard radars and other sensor systems that automatically respond to the environment (such as self-parking vehicles and smart cruise controls for stop-and-go traffic), as well as synergies between onboard electronics and portable devices (such as smartphones, tablets, portable entertainment devices, and storage) that drivers and passengers carry into the car. Drivers and passengers will rely on network technologies, including cellular communications, digital broadcasts, short-range wireless links, and wireless LANs. Wireless and portable devices enable new modes of in-vehicle entertainment, location-based services, and handheld devices that interact with displays that are embedded in the vehicle. Drivers stay up to date about local traffic, weather forecasts, sports results, financial data, and which friends are nearby. Electronics also help a mobile workforce to maintain productivity, whether in simply talking to clients while stuck in traffic or in generating contract documents. And in addition to car occupants, other entities can also use connections to vehicles. Car dealers, carmakers, insurance companies, law enforcers, and others will monitor repair and maintenance histories, use patterns, and other data.

Typical drivers worldwide have car radios and cell phones to keep them connected to the world, to colleagues, and to loved ones. Hands-free communications is common, partly a result of laws banning unsafe driving practices. Many cars also have windshield-mounted electronic-payment modules that help drivers maintain freeway speeds along toll roads. In-dash, stand-alone, and smartphone-based navigation systems with onboard GPS are increasingly common, helping drivers find their way on unfamiliar streets, monitor traffic conditions in real time, or discover nearby services or points of interest. Telematics service providers use onboard GPS (and other means) to locate stolen vehicles and drivers in need of assistance and to notify emergency services when a collision occurs. And smartphones or portable music players can play back content over a car's surround-sound system and accept commands from controls mounted on a steering wheel, so a driver does not have to take hands off the wheel. A special situation exists in Japan, where in-road monitoring infrastructure supports live, context-sensitive traffic reporting and optimized timing of traffic lights. But international trends favor in-dash and portable devices that send location and speed data to advanced traffic-report services, which provide very accurate real-time navigation assistance to help drivers avoid traffic jams—without relying on in-road infrastructure.

Continuing progress in telematics research and development promises to deliver new benefits. Smartphones could soon cause a navigation system to issue a warning to "change lanes now!"—say, if a driver's lane of travel is about to become a rush-hour carpool lane—or a message that "it's legal to park here for 35 minutes" so that a driver need not try to read a complicated street sign. Future vehicles may have their own internet address, allowing a parent to locate a wayward teenage driver or allowing a commercial-fleet manager to check fluid levels and other diagnostics for a particular truck. Future car-to-car communications could warn drivers of upcoming stopped traffic or a slippery road. Smart signs and other in-road infrastructure could combine with head-up displays to let drivers see through fog and around corners and handle other low-visibility conditions. Also, future wireless-enabled diagnostic systems could give carmakers a way to detect trouble before it happens and perhaps even to solve problems before they occur by automatically updating a car's software. And when cars do need repair, a customer-service technician may be able to use a wireless network to troubleshoot the car as the car drives into the shop and have an estimate and work order prepared and ready for signature as the customer walks up to the desk. Some of these ideas are more likely than others to become everyday realities. Carmakers' attempts to embed communication capability into cars have often led to disappointing market results. Short design cycles in high-tech industries, in combination with long design cycles in the automotive industry, mean that wireless equipment embedded into cars is often obsolete after a year or two of service. Meanwhile, long cycles for deploying new road infrastructures favor smart cars and cellular networks rather than vehicle-infrastructure integration. Cultures and national agendas produce solutions that differ greatly from one country to the next, affecting the development of global economies of scale for connected-car solutions. As a result, drivers need plug-and-play solutions that connect different brands of cars, in-dash electronics, and portable electronics. Improved interoperability will be important to market development. And interoperability is difficult, given competitive rivalries among countries and brands of vehicles, electronics, and network services. But regardless of the business challenges, connected-car technologies are in fact enabling growth of new markets, and industries need to monitor how these developments are affecting how we drive and how we conduct business.