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The connected car: is this the future of driving?

Wifi-enabled cars are already available, but the technology has endless potential

Car-to-car tech is the next step on the road to robotic cars that can talk constantly to each other. Photograph: iStock

Car-to-car tech is the next step on the road to robotic cars that can talk constantly to each other. Photograph: iStock

 

Autonomous cars get all the headlines, good and bad. Volkswagen, at the Geneva motor show this year, showed off an ID Vizzion concept car that was said to be so clever at driving itself that you could send it out to pick the kids up from school. As ever, motor show stand pronouncements are not given under oath, but those claims did ring either a little hollow or at least a lot further from present reality when news broke about Tesla and Uber vehicles getting involved in fatal incidents while under computer control.

While these robotic cars grab all the headlines at the moment, the truth is that the next big change in how we use and drive our cars is well under way already. Enter, the connected car.

Mark Teevan is the strategy, innovation and corporate affairs director at Toyota Ireland. He says that, while connected cars already exist, the trick to their widespread adoption and use was in creating a good reason for the consumer to do so. “It’s often the case with a new piece of technology that the customers don’t know they want it, and in the case of a lot of new tech recently, if we were waiting on customer demand, it wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “What you have, though, are very innovative people who come up with ideas that then create demand and desire. The service has to be made available, and then you scale it up rapidly if the demand is there. I don’t think we’ve seen it yet in terms of the connected car, in the usage model, but it is imminent. More imminent, certainly, than electric or autonomous cars.”

IBM, for one, agrees. The computing colossus recently conducted a survey of some 16,000 potential connected car users across the globe and found that: “Consumers who ranked themselves higher in their digital maturity had greater expectations for the new digital innovations in the vehicle and mobility services. Consumers who have a higher understanding of technology are more likely to use the connected features than those who don’t. Having a higher level of digital maturity will drive greater expectations for new digital innovations. Automakers who appreciate this can do a better job of matching consumers to digital technologies.”

Hang on, though. What do we mean by a connected car? Well, we already have them: from the luxurious Audi A8 right down to the (relatively) humble Opel Corsa can now be fitted with sim cards, turning them into wifi hot spots. That means that you can connect your phone, tablet, or laptop to the car to use the internet, but it also means that the car itself is connected to the internet. That, potentially, opens up a whole world of possibilities.

Amazon deliveries

Right now, that allows for relatively simple services to be offered. You can, for instance, connect to Spotify through your car’s touchscreen, without needing to connect your phone first (although, seeing as most of us connect our phones as soon as we sit in, that seems a touch redundant).

And how about parcel deliveries? Already services are being trialled that will allow Amazon, or some other parcel delivery service, instead of calling at your house to find that you’re not there, go and find your car, remotely open the boot (and only the boot) and deliver your consignment of Breaking Bad DVDs. Equally, it could be fuel: Bentley and Volvo are already planning to valet refuelling services, where your car electronically sends a signal that it needs a top-up, and a mini fuel truck rushes to your parking space to fill up your tank. Equally, Volkswagen already has a system where, every time you pass within communications range of your local VW dealer, your car will send a burst signal, updating the dealer on the car’s condition and whether or not it needs a service. Useful time-savers, or just another way for us to be sold things? We shall see.

Toyota hybrid technology at Dubai Motor Show. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Toyota hybrid technology at Dubai Motor Show. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

It gets a little more serious than that, though. Safety is a huge aspect of the connected car, and the concept of car-to-car and car-to-anything-else communication is key to that. Let’s say you’ve just driven around an icy corner and had a heart-in-mouth slide as you did so. Your car’s electronic stability control system could, in theory, send a signal to other cars in the area, pinpointing the spot where you slid, and warning other drivers to be careful. VW already has technology in its cars that, using mobile phone networks, can communicate via an app with owners or Volkswagen dealerships, but this car-to-car tech is the next step on the road to robotic cars that can talk constantly to each other. The idea is that, forewarned, a car can either take its own control decisions or warn its driver there is a hazard ahead, and therefore avoid an accident. The signal strength is such that a car can see several hundred metres “around the corner” and be warned of danger ahead.

Better safety

“We want to increase road safety with the aid of networked vehicles, and the most efficient way of achieving this is through the rapid roll-out of a common technology,” says Johannes Neft, head of vehicle body development for Volkswagen. “What matters most is that the technology is used consistently, and by as many manufacturers and partners as possible.”

One of the shortfalls of such systems is that a car maker’s products will usually only communicate with other cars of the same brand. That is changing, though:

“Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication (V2X) has already been standardised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,” says Rui Costa, chief technical officer at Veniam, a company that specialises in vehicle communications.

“The EU, the US and other nations have in fact already reserved the 5.9 GHz frequency band for its use. With vehicle mesh networks like the ones Veniam has deployed in Porto, Singapore and New York, car makers can further reduce the cost of sending car data, maps and software updates by up to 80 per cent when compared to traditional cellular only solutions. This is critical for the connected car but even more so for the autonomous vehicles of the future.”

All of which is laying the ground for car-sharing and what car makers (and other technology players) always refer to as “changing the modes of mobility”. According to IBM, “86 per cent of people we surveyed said they will own a car some time during the next 10 years – this includes some of the 14 per cent of people who said they couldn’t afford to buy a car today. Another 5 per cent said they will not own a vehicle, but will still be actively driving.

“Traditional ownership models will not meet the future expectations of consumers, as 42 per cent are very interested in subscription pricing, while another 24 per cent of respondents are very interested in fractional ownership of vehicles.”

Subscription model

The idea of paying a subscription and grabbing a car when you need it, rather than constantly having a stationary lump of metal on the driveway, could be seen as a hard sell in Ireland – we are, after all, a nation often though obsessed with property and ownership, and with a loathing of leasing. That may be changing though, and Irish consumers could well be more geared up for such changes than we realise.

“I don’t think that the mindset has shifted all that much, because I don’t think that people have really yet confronted the possibilities of shared ownership,” says Teevan. “I don’t see it as analogous to the property situation, because ultimately people do change their cars. People buy a property to live and stay in that property, but people buy cars to use cars, and then are happy to change as and when they want to. So possibly the idea of shared ownership isn’t so much a radical change, as a speeding-up of that process. It’s more about ‘Can a service that provides shared mobility bring a benefit to the consumer?’

“It’s the bright side of that dark side – pollution, congestion, lack of space, These are all growing issues, especially in big conurbations. So maybe shared ownership is an option to help start improving on some of those issues. That might be what provides the impetus to push us towards that shared ownership model.”