How 4G Will Change the Way We Drive

Audi’s Connect System

Audi recently partnered with Alcatel-Lucent to show off the potential of a prototype broadband LTE version of the Audi Connect infotainment system; the A8 test vehicle boasted impressive data-transfer rates of up to 100 megabits per second. Audi’s production Connect system is capable of 7.2-mbps in-vehicle speeds, and 2012 models with Connect are considered the first production Web-connected vehicles. Through a partnership with T-Mobile, this SIM-card-activated service-plan system features navigation and weather/news/gas-price travel services that stay up-to-date with a built-in cellular data connection, and its integrated Wi-Fi can connect up to eight devices.

But Audi is not resting on its laurels: Anu Pom Malhotra, Audi's connected vehicle strategist, has big ideas for the future. “We recognize that our customers want an enriched experience, and our technology could [eventually] enhance the Connect system up to hundreds of mbps," Malhotra says. "I see the future consumption of data through methods more along the lines of streaming, as opposed to bit-by-bit. Info could be exchanged by devices in the vehicle, between the cloud, and even between the infrastructure and other vehicles--that info exchange between traffic would improve the ability to manage travel time.”

Cadillac’s CUE System

CUE, which stands for Cadillac User Experience, is a combined infotainment, navigation, and communication system that’s easy to use. It enables users to connect up to ten Bluetooth mobile devices--its Bluetooth Audio Streaming AVRCP 1.4 supports wireless browsing of media players--and it features two USB ports and an SD Card slot, too. CUE dazzles with a four-button design, a display offering haptic feedback and proximity sensing, and OnStar integration. And CUE’s smartphone connectivity is a good example of how manufacturers are bridging the gap between today’s “smartphone 4G” and tomorrow’s true mobile broadband.

“We are leveraging smartphones, but if you look at that 4G space, some of the phones that are on market are data-only solutions right now,” says Tim Nixon, executive director and global functional leader of GM’s Infotainment and OnStar groups. “What we want to do is an all-inclusive platform with voice and data. Once you start talking 20-plus mbps, some very interesting discussions about cloud-based services happen. Sometime down the road--not too far away--we want to grow and expand this platform,” Nixon says.

Speaking of expanding the platform, Nixon and his team are already sitting on an information gold mine.

“We have found an unbelievable amount of richness in OnStar data that we see as an opportunity to enhance the driving experience,” he states. “This data mining could lead to vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure interaction. For instance, if drivers at mile marker XXX had their wipers on, that info could be passed to vehicles approaching that point. Or if numerous stability-control activations happened at a certain point in the road, those vehicles could signal to other vehicles that there is black ice ahead. I don’t see things like full-motion video road signs being out of the realm of possibility.”

And taking it a step further would only enhance the driving experience, says Ford’s Prasad.

“I can see augmented reality making driving more convenient," Prasad notes. "For example, on-demand selective real-time transparency would give you a better sense of your surroundings. You could be coming down an avenue in NYC and looking for a parking spot. If you could make that city bus transparent, you could see a spot you didn’t even know was there! These are the kinds of features that we’ll be working towards.”

Kia’s UVO System

Dreaming big and reaching for a Minority Report-like future is one way to approach mobile broadband. However, other people believe that 4G connectivity will be the only available option in the future.

"We’re headed down the 4G path for a couple of reasons,” states Henry Bzeih, Kia’s head of infotainment and connectivity. Kia’s voice-activated UVO system, like Ford’s Sync, is the impressive result of a partnership with Microsoft. It features Bluetooth smartphone connections, a color touchscreen, an integrated rearview camera, and a 700MB in-dash music hard drive. While Bzeih hints towards UVO being Kia’s global infotainment and telematics brand platform going forward, he can’t help but wonder if, down the road, we'll have only one generation of wireless technology to power it.

“Current technology may not be supported in the long term--according to some carriers, 3G will be going away by 2020. If you embed 3G technology into a vehicle, it’s possible that this type of content won’t be available throughout a ten-year vehicle life," Bzeih says.

“Also, future features won’t be available with 3G. Things like personal assistants, or proactive safety services using V-to-V and V-to-I technology, need bandwidth beyond 3G. So it’s safe to bet that, based on carriers and technology, going to 4G isn’t going to be a choice.”

So while today’s car companies flirt with 4G speeds and employ the latest smart devices for their state-of-the-art infotainment systems, many broadband obstacles still remain. But it’s only a matter of time before carriers, engineers, and bean counters shift to production-based mobile broadband, and turn 3G and its “smartphone 4G” successor into the CD changers of our hard-drive-oriented world.

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