The “4G” term is everywhere now, but although smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers are using the new technology, we've heard little about it from the automotive industry. The potential is intriguing, however, because in the past decade, car companies have made huge progress in integrating high-speed connected communications and entertainment systems with automobiles.
For an industry that not long ago pushed car phones and trunk-mounted CD changers as the pinnacle of in-vehicle technology, practical services such as GM’s pioneering OnStar and high-tech infotainment options like the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system have been significant advances, adding tremendous value and unrivaled convenience for today’s drivers.
Most of those services have run on 2G and 3G connections. But 4G is coming to the automobile, and some of the chatter coming from automakers suggests that the 4G-connected car will perform a whole new set of tricks.
In the past year or so, broadband concept cars such as the NG Connect Toyota Prius and the Verizon OnStar 4G Buick LaCrosse have given enthusiasts a glimpse into the near future of automotive connectivity. Utilizing the Verizon 4G LTE network, the LaCrosse's wild features included a custom in-dash display portal that offered online access stored in remote servers, a driver-facing camera in the rearview mirror for video Skype chats, a home-control system, and Internet-based, voice-controlled entertainment.
With such tantalizing inventions at hand, we interviewed several car-company experts, asking them to discuss the broadband technology of tomorrow, and what it will mean for drivers.
Ford’s Sync Service
Ford’s Venkatesh Prasad has big ideas. “Ford won’t speak officially about a 4G production time,” he says, “but we’re closely evaluating it, and seriously considering the best ways to implement it.”
As the senior technical leader for vehicle design and infotronics in the Ford Research and Innovation group (or Ford’s “What’s Next” guy, for short), Prasad has greatly influenced the development of Ford’s Sync system. Sync leverages the data connections of smartphones to deliver apps, entertainment offerings, and navigation services to the vehicle. Because it allows Bluetooth pairing with smartphones, using it with 4G phones results in faster, “smartphone 4G” data speeds. And since the high-end Sync with MyFord Touch package can use a USB modem or a smartphone as an in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot, it's poised to take advantage of tomorrow’s fatter data pipes.
“Sync would benefit from a large-pipe connection because it is based on what’s built in, brought in, or beamed in,” Prasad says. “Bandwidth-heavy video and entertainment would be possible, and rear-seat passengers wouldn’t have to stay at home to finish a movie or a Skype conversation. And current services like navigation could be enhanced--instead of having a box in the vehicle, turn-by-turn nav with augmented graphics could be piped in directly from the cloud.”
Ford’s Evos Concept
Prasad is a big proponent of the cloud; he spent a year working on the connectivity aspects of the groundbreaking 2011 Evos concept car. “The Evos is an example of a vehicle platform that’s fully capable of embracing new technology,” Prasad says, beaming.
And once you realize what Evos can do, you understand his enthusiasm: It’s a fascinating look into a world where the driver’s personal information and schedule combine with cloud-based info such as the current traffic and weather conditions, resulting in a seamless, customized experience that goes far beyond just driving. Evos will reset your alarm clock if a meeting is canceled, preheat or precool your cabin based on your estimated departure time, and sync your home or office music to the car. It can even offer adaptive vehicle technologies to combine your driving skill with the road and weather conditions, and adjust the suspension and other components for a spirited but safe drive.
Next page: Audi, Cadillac, and Kia systems