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The Speed Bumps Slowing Down the Cars of Tomorrow

By Peter Suciu
Jan 18, 2013 5:00 AM PT

It used to be that the intersection of cars and technology could be found at the annual North American International Auto Show, aka the Detroit Auto Show, which is where the action is this week and next. The show has been known for drawing onlookers to ogle sleek, shiny concept cars with futuristic designs on the outside, and gadgets and applications right out of a Knight Rider episode on the inside.

The Speed Bumps Slowing Down the Cars of Tomorrow

This year, however, that car-tech intersection seems to have shifted some 2,000 miles west to Las Vegas, home of last week's big consumer electronics trade show.

No one expects the king of auto shows to move permanently to Vegas. Yet there were enough car-related technology products and services announced at CES 2013 to make it clear that autos are rapidly becoming computers with wheels. For that transition to become complete, both the auto and technology industries still have to negotiate some obstacles.

The Real KITT Car

While nobody is expecting to enjoy the kind of snarky conversations Michael Knight had with his Knight Rider buddy KITT, the latest voice recognition systems on display in Las Vegas show capabilities for communication between car and driver that go beyond simple turn-by-turn GPS navigation.

Nuance Communications and Hyundai used CES to announce the development of new voice-enabled infotainment systems using the Dragon Drive platform, which integrates Nuance's natural speech technology.

"This could be the big explosion in terms of convergence between technology and the automobile," Praveen Chandrasekar, infotainment and telematics program manager at Frost & Sullivan, told TechNewsWorld. "This is something that is going to be big."

The technology includes personalized greetings and updated weather forecasts along with directions for the driver, who simply voices requests from the system.

Smartcar via Smartphone

The cars of tomorrow won't just have advanced computer systems. They'll also take advantage of something more drivers are already carrying with them: their smartphone. This can open the door to a new stage of application development.

"Apps -- this is the trend of the industry. Everything is going app-based as OEMs see the advantages to flexibility and upgradability over time," said Mark C. Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager for infotainment and HMI at IHS Automotive. "In fact, items like navigation, Bluetooth telephony, and even radio functions are now being transitioned over to software applications running on -- hopefully -- a future-proofed hardware platform."

The true innovations will be in OEMs' methods for adopting those applications, Boyadjis told TechNewsWorld.

"Just like the connectivity debate, there is more than one way to integrate applications or application content into the car," he said.

What happens to those on data plans, especially as the mobile phone carriers move away from unlimited usage and replace them with tiered plans? Could the automobile become another shared device?

"Ideally, yes -- and in theory, it's a simple process," Boyadjis added. "The share- everything plans could simply include three smartphones, two iPads and a Toyota."

Compatibility as a Feature, Not an Option

There could be a collision involving the compatibility of devices and networks, though. Going hardware- and network-agnostic may serve a telecommunications carrier's purposes, but it will likely be too expensive to sustain, observed Boyadjis.

"Essentially, the technology exists to allow for any vehicle to connect up to any network -- either via MVNO or via a rather costly and yet-unproven hardware configuration," he explained. "With the MVNO, you will achieve the said purpose, but won't be able to add the vehicle to a share-everything plan, as it will run through a separate service provider."

Compatibility is also an issue when one considers that mobile handsets -- like cars -- are regularly replaced with newer models, making it very difficult for automakers to keep up. There is also the fact that infotainment technology is essentially mutually exclusive not only to brands, but even within models. This creates a challenge when it comes to creating anything resembling a standard.

"That is the biggest barrier for the automobile industry," said Dominique Bonte, vice president and practice director for navigation, telematics and M2M at ABI Research.

"There are 200 to 300 different car interfaces, and for software developers that could mean 200 to 300 different versions of their product," he told TechNewsWorld. "That is not a sustainable business model. The consumer doesn't want to spend time and energy learning another interface. That is why the industry going forward is going to need to develop a common interface. But when that will happen isn't clear."

Merging Safety With Technology

Safety was uppermost on the minds of Lexus executives who used their CES press conference to show their company's commitment to easier driving.

"A more skilled driver is a safer driver," said Mark Templin, Lexus Group vice president and general manager. "Our vision is a car equipped with an intelligent, always-attentive copilot whose skills contribute to safer driving."

Lexus's research car at CES showed off a system that uses driving sensors powered by radar, lasers, cameras and GPS.

Audi also brought out a tech-heavy concept car, once that does the driving for you, keeping the auto going forward even if the driver releases the steering wheel and takes his foot off the gas pedal.

This concept -- automated driving -- was discussed at CES' Network Effect Changes Everything SuperSession panel.

"The technology makes our cars smarter, but also helps our drivers be better. We are gradually turning cars into robots," said Rodney Brooks, founder, chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics.

However, those concept and research cars are years down the industry highway. The current perception of technology in cars is that the combination leads to distracted driving. In many parts of the country, it is already illegal to text and drive, or talk on a phone except with a hands-free handset.

"Safety is big. That is one of the biggest concerns for the manufacturers," said ABI's Bonte.

"There is fear about bringing that technology to the car -- fears of being sued," he continued. "Some of the manufacturers are limiting the apps that can be used. It isn't the wild west where any app can be integrated into the car. But there is also legislation against the use of some technology while driving, and that is going to be something to watch going forward."

The advent of cloud computing and Big Data could ease the transition, with cheaper ways of introducing technologies that make cars safer. Systems could analyze driving patterns, monitor behaviors and offer predictive environments.

"We could soon see a car that could track your Monday driving habits, your Tuesday habits and so on," Frost & Sullivan's Chandrasekar said. "It could provide this dynamic service to the driver. Cloud and big data will become increasingly important, and it will bring this all together."

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing.

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