The race to go online in your car


Craig Thomas

August 19, 2014

With new apps and improved in-car connectivity, are our cars set to become smartphones on wheels?

More than three quarters of the British population own a smartphone, which they use not only for making calls and texting, but also for gaming, shopping and internet searches.

Many motorists also use them for navigation and listening to music, and smartphones will become even more useful in a few months when Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto systems start appearing in an increasing number of new cars, allowing us to use even more apps while on the move.

But tethering your phone to a car, via a cable or Bluetooth, is still just a stepping stone to what we can expect to see in the not-too-distant future, as our cars start to communicate with the outside world themselves. Welcome to the age of the connected car.

Connected cars will be able to help us avoid jams, find a parking space and catch up with work, all without taking our hands from the steering wheel – and could even save our lives in the event of a crash.

Like smartphones, the connected car will be able to transmit and receive information by using a humble SIM card, which will be embedded in the car itself. In fact, BMW has fitted a 3G SIM card to every car that’s rolled off its production lines since April. And other premium manufacturers are planning to follow suit; by 2018, 36 million new cars – almost a third of those sold – will have an embedded SIM.

Part of the impetus for this connectivity is the EU’s eCall legislation, due to come into force by early 2018. In the event of a crash, it will require a car to automatically call the emergency services with its exact location. The improved response times could save hundreds of lives and lessen the impact of thousands of injuries every year.

The same technology will also mean that breakdown services can be alerted if a connected car shudders to a halt, with the car’s telematics system able to communicate exactly what the problem is. This is known as bCall.

But while legislation might be driving the adoption of connectivity, car makers will be pushing on an open door when it comes to consumers wanting to make the most of this brave new world. Because if manufacturers can’t supply it, car buyers will head to another marque’s showroom; indeed, management consultancy McKinsey recently found that 27 per cent of iPhone users would change their car brand if it offered better connectivity.

Motorists want a connected car because, thanks to the increasing usefulness of smartphones, we’re hooked on apps. However, unlike Angry Birds, the ones in our cars will be practical.

Take real-time traffic information, for example. As connected cars will constantly transmit their speed and GPS position to a cloud server, and also receive data from that server about other cars, information will be updated almost second by second. The car’s satellite navigation system will then be able to use this information to route you away from any congestion, saving you time (and stress).

Then, when you get to your destination, a parking app will not only tell you which car park has vacant spaces, but could even direct you to the empty bays (in a “smart”, sensor-fitted car park). Who’s going to miss the hassle of driving around a multi-storey car park while looking for that elusive empty bay?

You can also look forward to concierge services that connect you to a personal assistant in a call centre at the touch of a button. Want to find a restaurant or know film times at a local cinema? They’ll be able to help you. Or if you need a hotel room, they’ll not only be able to find you one, but book it, too.

Car makers are also collaborating with developers to come up with all kinds of useful apps designed specifically for your car. These on-board apps will include streaming music services, ones that text your position to loved ones to let them know where you are (particularly useful for parents of teenage drivers), calendars that alert you to forthcoming appointments, and even the ability to dictate notes, memos and emails, or posts to your social media accounts.

Of course there are issues for car manufacturers – and their technology partners, such as mobile network operators – to overcome, including the dangers of increased driver distraction, the disparity between development times for cars (about seven years) and apps (weeks, or even days), as well as data privacy concerns. But as the global connected car market could be worth about £23.9 billion in 2018, there’s plenty of motivation for the car makers to resolve these.

Rupert Stadler, the chairman of Audi, said earlier this year that cars would become the largest social media devices we owned. As we all start to get online in our cars in the next few years, the truth of this will become self-evident, as our smartphones are replaced in our affections by even smarter cars.

BMW’s connected cars

BMW is already embracing the connected car by using the embedded SIM cards in its cars with its ConnectedDrive system to offer owners a wide range of services, writes Craig Thomas.

Real-time traffic information (RTTI) is already up and running and at the disposal of BMW drivers, with an option in the navigation system to dynamically adjust the route to avoid congestion (it currently uses other motorists’ mobile phone signals to work out where there’s a hold-up).

There are also a number of apps that will help business drivers stay productive, and a streaming music service (called Rara) that, for a fee, gives owners access to 28 million songs.

And the launch of BMW’s own app store – the ConnectedDrive Store – in the UK within the next 12 months will mean a huge number of services will be available to owners.

Of course, there’s a cost: full connectivity is a £1,890 option on a new BMW, with apps costing extra and a subscription to the streaming music service £325 per year.

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