It’s widely apparent that the future of the automobile industry is being built inside foundries and software programs—not inside parts factories. Computer processors, image sensors, and wireless chips are being combined in vehicles to provide wireless internet access, automated highway driving, and safety features like blind spot warnings and collision avoidance.
New technologies are creeping into cars from all sides—image sensors from Sony, graphics chips from Nvidia, processors from NXP, artificial intelligence from Google and Tesla—but at the heart of recent advances are wireless networks. Connectivity has not only enabled drivers to access their smartphones on dashboard displays, but also cleared the way for vehicles to communicate with each other and infrastructure.
This shift toward connectivity has been underlined at many of the largest technology events this year. Mary T. Barra, chief executive of General Motors, and Herbert Diess, chief executive of Volkswagen, both gave keynotes at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. Mark Fields, chief executive of Ford, delivered a keynote address at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month.
During his keynote, Fields emphasized that Ford was adopting more of a “mobility” focus. In addition to plans to expand its car-sharing services in Europe, he also said that Ford would triple its engineering staff at its autonomous vehicle research center in Silicon Valley. These measures are meant to counteract pressure from ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. Apple and Google have also placed pressure on auto companies, plugging their software—CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively—into dashboard displays.
All signs are pointing to a future of connected cars. The research firm IHS Automotive expects that, in 2022, nearly 98% of all cars sold around the world will be connected to the Internet. In 2015, only around 30% were connected. Another research firm, McKinsey & Company, has said that 37% of consumers would change cars if another company offered connectivity features.
That future depends on the collective efforts of several different industries. That has not been clearer than over the last few weeks when wireless, automotive, and electronics companies have signed agreements to accelerate the process. Here are several recent announcements, underlining the multi-pronged approach that companies are taking with connected cars:
LG and Intel Team Up on Telematics
LG Electronics recently announced that it would work with Intel to develop a new telematics platform. The new technology could enable services including GPS tracking, hands-free calling, and wireless Internet access for vehicles. The new technology will be designed to work with Fifth-Generation (5G) wireless technology. LG already supplies telematics technology to General Motors’ OnStar system, which runs on 4G networks.
AT&T Supplies Wireless to Porsche and Audi
AT&T reached an agreement to connect Porsche vehicles to its Fourth-Generation (4G) wireless network. Starting in 2017, the wireless carrier will support Porsche’s Connect Plus service, which includes a Wi-Fi hotspot, navigation system, and news and weather updates sent directly to the dashboard.
AT&T also extended an agreement with Audi, lending support to the auto company’s telematics platform, Audi connect. The agreement lasts through 2018. Using the AT&T network, Audi plans to introduce new safety, security, and entertainment features, such as remote locking and unlocking and online roadside assistance.
Volvo Takes Keys Out of the Equation
At this point, car keys have largely been replaced by wireless key fobs—and in some cases, ignition keys have been replaced with push-button starts. Now, Volvo is taking keys out of the equation entirely. The company announced that, starting in 2017, it will give customers the option to buy cars without keys. Instead, owners would use Volvo’s smartphone app to unlock their cars.
Volvo will pilot the keyless feature with its car-sharing service “Sunfleet” over the next few months. That service, which works on a similar concept as ZipCar in the United States, operates about 1,000 cars at 50 locations around Sweden. The keyless option will be available in commercial models in 2017.
Ford Reveals Kuga and Future Smart Mobility Plans
Ford launched the new Kuga S.U.V. and announced plans to bring its Sync 3 connectivity technology to Europe. In a statement about the new Kuga, Ford stressed that it would have wireless internet access and automated features, including hands-free parking, collision avoidance, and headlights that adapted to light conditions.
The company also said that it would further expand Smart Mobility, the company’s initiative surrounding autonomous vehicles, big data, and connectivity. Among its other experiments into “transportation services,” it has started testing a system in London that directs drivers to streets where they are most likely to find parking. Ford also said that it would test car-sharing businesses in England and Germany.
Nokia Tests 5G Vehicle Technology
Nokia recently displayed an early version of 5G radio access technology in a commercial base station—part of its plan to install preliminary 5G networks in 2017. In an attempt to tests its advanced features, the company piloted its technology with test cars on the Autobahn highway in Germany. Using Deutsche Telekom’s 4G network, the cars were able to share location information between each other.
Sharing information between vehicles quickly is central to systems that help prevent accidents and enable automated safety features. Deutsche Telekom’s base stations were upgraded with wireless modules (also known as cloudlets), which ensure that data is directly routed through the cell rather than the cloud, reducing latency to under 20 milliseconds.
Samsung Dongle Connects Unconnected Cars
Samsung recently revealed its Connect Auto dongle, which brings 4G networks to older cars by plugging into the vehicle’s on-board diagnostic port. Most vehicles built in the last two decades have this port and with the dongle sends real-time diagnostic information and even automatic updates to contacts in case of an accident. The dongle also functions as Wi-Fi hotspot. It will be available later this year, and AT&T will be the first carrier to offer it in the United States.
Qualcomm Reveals Self-Driving Concept with Mercedes-Benz
Qualcomm, which supplies processors and modem chips for smartphones, has been working with Mercedes-Benz on its futuristic self-driving prototype—the 2016 Mercedes F015. Underling its efforts to insert more wireless components into cars, Derek Aberle, Qualcomm’s president, appeared on a panel with Lewis Hamilton, the driver for Mercedes AMG Petronas racing team, at last month's Mobile World Congress. Qualcomm has worked with the team over the last year to install Wi-Fi systems that download diagnostic information during practice runs.
“Today the car already has certain kinds of connectivity,” Aberle said in his introduction to the panel. “LTE is already enabling connections to the cloud from the vehicle. And also within cars things like Bluetooth allow you interact with devices in the car. But in the future the car’s going to be connected to everything…The car itself will become a mobile platform.”