AT&T’s Quiet Connected-Car Revolution


Harry McCracken

September 14, 2015

At the end of July, when AT&T announced its financial results, it reported that it had added 2.1 million new wireless lines to its total subscriber base in the previous quarter. The most intriguing thing about that figure is that it didn’t represent 2.1 million more folks signing up for AT&T phone service. Instead, one million of those new lines—almost half—were automobiles using built-in cellular technology to connect to the network.

AT&T has been able to rack up so many connected-car customers in part because it’s been so successful at racking up car companies as partners. Today, it’s announcing a deal to provide built-in connectivity for Jaguar Land Rover North America vehicles. The Land Rover and Land Rover Sport models are first, starting next month, with more models to come.

We really believed the car space could be the ultimate connected device.

“This is our ninth partner,” says Glenn Lurie, CEO of AT&T Mobility. “Depending on the definition, there are 15 or 16 major players in the car business.” No other U.S. carrier is anywhere near matching AT&T’s pace of creating these deals.

Before being named AT&T Mobility CEO a year ago, Lurie was in charge of emerging devices, such as cars. Which means that his new gig running the entire company is one indication of how seriously it takes the automotive opportunity.

At first blush, you might assume that the only thing a wireless company needs to do to succeed with connected cars is to deliver fast, reliable Internet access. That’s certainly the single most important factor. But behind the scenes, AT&T is deeply involved with building out connected cars as a category. It’s developing foundational software, coming up with useful features that wireless access can make possible, and providing hand-holding for automobile companies as they figure out their digital future.

In short, it’s embedded in the industry in ways you can’t tell, even if you own a car with AT&T LTE.

Getting With The Program

Lurie told me that the company has seen automobiles as a major opportunity for years, akin to the mainstream smartphone market that it helped kick-start almost a decade ago by being the iPhone’s original carrier. “We really believed the car space could be the ultimate connected device,” he says. “To be really candid, it was really hard early on. The car companies were not there. They’d say, ‘I might need [wireless] for safety and security—give me a 2G module at the cheapest price you can, then go away.”

An AT&T Drive API gives apps access to everything from door locks to wiper speed.

Now every car company knows that 4G connectivity is important for infotainment, navigation, safety, and other features. “”They really started to understand the car would have to be a smartphone with four wheels,” Lurie says.

But there’s still no consensus on what features matter most and how to implement them. “When we started to better understand the industry, we saw that manufacturers had different strategies,” explains Brian Greaves, director of product development for Internet of Things at AT&T Mobility. “We needed to have a very flexible platform.”

The company calls that platform AT&T Drive, and it’s a set of building blocks that cover a lot of ground: infotainment apps, voice input, connectivity with devices such as cameras, content, billing back-end integration, and more. It also folds in third-party apps, ranging from AetherPal (for remote customer service) to Glympse (location sharing) to the self-explanatory Car manufacturers can mix and match components—and combine them with their own software and services—to get the results they want.

Drive “has played a huge role” in AT&T’s automotive momentum, says Lurie. “It’s a platform that allows each car company to choose where they need help, from hardware to software to connectivity.”

AT&T also built a place—part lab, part garage—for testing technologies and collaborating with car companies, parts makers, and other interested parties. It’s called the Drive Studio and is located in Atlanta. And it collaborates with AT&T Foundry innovation centers in Atlanta; Palo Alto, California; Plano, Texas; and Ra’anana, Israel.

The Anti-Snoozer team brandishes a giant check for their winning hackathon entry.

New Ideas, And Where They Come From

The Drive platform is about giving car manufacturers functionality they need right now. But a significant percentage of AT&T’s automotive-related energy is dedicated to devising new capabilities that might be part of the connected car’s future. A January hackathon in Las Vegas, for instance, was won by Anti-Snoozer, a project that uses a camera and facial recognition to monitor drivers for signs of sleepiness such as blinking eyes, then nudges them by vibrating their smartwatch. AT&T handed over a $10,000 prize.

A test setup for the child-detecting safety system

The company is coming up with its own concepts for all-new ways to integrate technology into vehicles, too. One was hatched about a year ago by Nancy Dominguez, a University of Texas engineering student and intern at AT&T’s Plano Foundry. Tragic news stories about parents who accidentally left children in hot cars led her to wonder: Could you put sensors in a vehicle to detect a living creature and set off an alarm?

Dominguez tested her idea by putting together a rough prototype. AT&T has continued to refine it into something that could be used as the basis of a commercial product.

The projects are experiments rather than straightforward attempts to bring technologies to market as quickly as possible. In fact, if expedient commercial viability were the key factor, the company might not have pursued Dominguez’s idea at all. “AT&T is not really in the manufacturing business,” says Mike Albrecht, an innovation coach at AT&T’s Plano Foundry. “And it’s a really hard sell to tell people to buy a thing because you’re going to be a bad parent.” Still, the ultimate goal is to work with a hardware partner to turn the safety sensor into a successful shipping product.

Nancy Dominguez with her child-safety sensor system

In the end, the car business is never going to look exactly like the smartphone business. With its plodding product cycles and safety as the highest priority, it will take a while before some of the bright ideas that AT&T and others are working on have a shot at becoming standard equipment. “The auto industry moves at a much slower pace, with good reason,” says Greaves.

Still, Lurie references a survey that says that 75% of new cars will sport built-in connectivity by 2020. LTE, he says, will enable an array of new capabilities in just the next few years, from car-to-car communications to much smarter voice control: “This is one of those situations where if you build it, they will come. Once you put LTE in a vehicle, I’m not sure if we know all the great things that will happen.”

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This article was written by Harry McCracken from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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