Tie-ups between carmakers and tech firms are leading to production of safer vehicles

You're driving at a snail's pace in early morning traffic and then you get a frantic call from your top client. What do you do? If you pick it up, the cop catches you or worse, you risk an accident; if not, you lose your job.

Such challenges may not plague one for much longer. With most city dwellers spending more and more time inside their cars, carmakers are adopting technology that would make your personal ride a mobile office. And, the good news is that it's happening very fast.

High-tech systems

Most top technology firms such as Microsoft, Google and Siemens PLM are working on ‘connected car' platforms with top carmakers today. Their aim? To help you make calls, browse the internet, watch videos and be virtually present at work meetings, while still keeping your hands free to do the most important thing – hold the steering wheel.

Additionally, the car can also act like your ‘credit card' by paying your toll fees wirelessly. GPS-based navigation systems can also be updated remotely via the Internet, enabling accuracy in directions even for the newest localities. Current generation navigation systems work on pre-loaded map data.

Embedded systems in the car can help manufacturers track the health of the car and warn users of any potential risk. With carmakers having real-time access to any car on the road, data gathered can help in designing safer, more efficient vehicles.

Such systems can also automatically alert emergency services such as hospitals and dealerships the location of any vehicle that meets with an accident. Brazil, in fact, has made embedded systems mandatory in order to track stolen vehicles.

“Cars will be able to talk to each other. With stereo cameras, this will help prevent accidents as vehicles will be able to judge the distance and speed of cars around them,” a BMW official said.

Today, such high-end technology is mostly seen on premium makes such as BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. However, with such features rapidly becoming a necessity than luxury, they are rapidly flowing into the mass segment as well. Industry estimates say that 90 per cent of cars by 2017 will come with telematics, from about 20 per cent today.

Driven by innovation

Ford, for instance, has been working with Microsoft for its Sync platform since 2008. This is a factory-installed communications and entertainment system that allows voice-based commands.

Similarly GM's OnStar subsidiary, which develops integrated systems for its cars, claimed over six million users last year. Audi's MMI can recognise handwriting recognition for commands, while BMW's iDrive and Assist designed for entertainment and emergency services.

Microsoft is also working with Hyundai and Fiat for in-car systems, while pursuing a cloud-based platform in a tie-up with Toyota. “In a cloud-based scalable model, car companies pay only for usage. Its cost-effective as they don't have to maintain the backend infrastructure like servers, which can be shared across markets and companies,” Mr Sanjay Ravi, Managing Director, Automotive, Industrial &Aerospace, and High-tech & Electronics Industries, Microsoft said.

Mercedes-Benz is working with both Apple and Google for their future vehicles. Technologies in the works include remote activation, such as starting a vehicle or the cooling system from one's smart phone, apart from autonomous driving.

“We're also setting up an App Development Group, which will be headquartered in Palo Alto (US), but have centers in India and China. It will port apps from one OS to the other and modify them for our cars,” Mr Ralf Lamberti, Daimler AG's Director for Infotainment, Telematics & Cabin (Group Research & Advanced Engineering) said.

“When we first put the radio in the car in 1950, people said who needs it. Now, it's integrated into the lifestyle,” he added.

For the mass segment, Garmin is working on connected car systems with Suzuki for models such as the SX4. While a US launch is expected in the next few months, such systems could be offered in India by next year itself.

Among the domestic biggies, Tata Motors offers a system for navigation and phone integration in the Aria MPV, while Mahindra offers a similar package in its top model – the XUV500 SUV. However, these systems are yet to be connected to the internet.

‘Car'mic connections

There are many ways to connect a car. Pairing it with a smartphone and tapping into the data connection could help it access the internet. Alternatively, cars could catch neighbourhood wireless internet signals, especially with many countries now heading towards 4G services (LTE).

Last week, US telecom service firm, Verizon, announced the formation of a ‘4G Venture Forum for Connected Cars' to find ways to use LTE to power automotive telematics (any integrated use of telecommunications and informatics) in the future. There are also systems being developed where the mobile phone screen will be replicated wirelessly on the car's larger display screen.

Tech experts say that the next step is to improve touch-based systems, gesture controls and perfect voice recognition software. This will go a long way in creating almost life-like virtual assistants, a more evolved form of Apple's Siri maybe.

“There are many improvements expected in speech recognition, which will emphasise more on the speech used across the world. It has to react better with the user. We're always working to make the technology available into auto-grade, build ruggedness and ability to handle high temperatures,” said Mr Lamberti said.

There are other benefits of a connected car, such as discounted car insurance rates. In the US, State Farm offers such a scheme to users of Ford's SYNC and GM's OnStar systems. The insurer judges driver behavioural patterns and other data such as daily driving cycle and where the driver travels, to calculate the potential risk to the vehicle. So if you brake more often, you may be labelled as unsafe, or if you drive less, the chances of an accident are lower.

There is, however, some who have certain conservations about such technologies - mostly on privacy issues. The fear is that the data gathered on a consumer can be used against them, at times in legal situations. Once gathered, a consumer has no control over who uses the data and for what purpose, so a Government can get access to the travel data or any other agency willing to pay. Marketing firms can also find it useful to track consumer behaviour, making this data very easy to monetise.

(This article was published on June 10, 2012)
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