First there was the PC. Then came the smartphone, followed by tablets. After that, endpoints began popping up all over the place. If an endpoint is a single user device with a human interface and an Internet Protocol (IP) address, then suddenly, endpoints were everywhere. The Internet of Things is all about the proliferation of intelligent nodes throughout the fabric of our lives. And the automobile is going to become one of our most important nodes.
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I’ve written about the ways in which cars could, might, and will become smarter, enhancing our daily experience. Digital technology and high-speed communications have the potential to make driving safer, more fun, and, yes, even more productive.
For example, many years down the road, but perhaps as few as 20, drivers will have an “autopilot” option, particularly on the highway. Optimal decision-making on a heavily-trafficked freeway is easier for a machine than for a person, particularly when the machine has the benefit of being able to coordinate with all the other machines on the road. Traffic flows are better managed by an omniscient driving algorithm when the number of choices is limited: car must all stay on the highway and move forward. But the driver will be able to take back control merely by touching the steering wheel when, for example, he or she is looking for a parking space. The interplay of decisions here is easier for a human: How far from the first store I’m going to? How far from the last? Is it too cold to walk far, making the paid alternative more attractive? Does the far side of the lot have a more pleasant path to walk on? Is that space wide enough to let me open my door once I’m parked? Do I not want to park next to that sinister-looking SUV?
To get to the end game, where highly intelligent cars interact with each other and the grid to optimize the transport experience, it is necessary to start somewhere, and we are seeing these first steps right now. Most people are aware that Google has been working on driverless cars for a while, but the traditional automobile manufacturers are also preparing for the future.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, a number of companies showed futuristic vehicle technology. General Motors, Ford, Audi, and many firms in the automobile supply chain displayed aspects of or complete future concept cars.
I was unable to attend, due to weather on the East Coast, but I did manage to rebook many of my appointments as conference calls later on. One such call was with Tim Nixon, chief technology officer of a division of General Motors (GM) called Global Connected Consumer (GCC). GCC, which deals with anything having to do with communications to, from, and within cars, started life as the operator of GM’s OnStar services, which cover what Nixon calls the “peace-of-mind” services (e.g., stolen vehicle tracking, automated crash response).
At CES, GM announced its 4G LTE high-speed data service, which will run on AT&T’s network. The lead vehicle for this rollout will be Chevrolet, a statement that Nixon says indicates that the company plans this service to be mainstream rather than for just the luxury market. The 2015 Chevrolet Corvette, Impala, Malibu, and Volt will be the first to offer optional OnStar 4G LTE. After that, the Equinox, Silverado, and Spark lines will get the functionality.
The OnStar brand now includes “Connected by OnStar,” the underlying infrastructure layer for four groups of services: traditional OnStar, WiFi hotspot connectivity (for up to seven devices in the car), infotainment, and something called “core connectivity,” which covers what can be done from outside the car (e.g., remote unlock, remote start, location of vehicle sent to smartphone).
This set of functionality is designed, of course, to be useful today, but it is also part of the set of building blocks for the future. As the car becomes a regular endpoint (you can add a car to your AT&T plan just as if it were a tablet), its sensors, cameras, GPS, and radio functionality will become part of a system that connects to systems around it. As Nixon points out, communications will be from vehicle to vehicle, from vehicle to infrastructure (which could include roads, bridges, tolls), and from vehicle to the cloud (for services like weather and traffic).
“We are now putting the pipes in place to make things possible,” says Nixon.
Here’s a tiny taste of the future: Nixon recounted a time when he was in a hotel in China and wondered whether he had locked his car back in Detroit. He simply fired up a smartphone app for that, pressed “lock,” and received a positive confirmation on his phone a few minutes later. He locked his car from thousands of miles away — over the Internet.