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PHOTO CAPTION: Google's autonomous car.

The IoT and Future of Connected Cars

The connected cars of the 'Internet of Things' (IoT) are already on their way. Ready or not, here they come.

Published: 15-Jul-2015

By Beth Kelly

What if there were no stoplights? And cars zipped through intersections like schools of fish, with the automobiles from the west sneaking through open slots left by automobiles streaming in from the south? And there were no screams of fright, because nobody cared?

This is one version of the Internet of Things (IoT), the inevitable revolution where cars will communicate autonomously over wireless networks. This future has many faces. Some believe that cars, like Google's self-driving prototype, will navigate themselves and carry their humans like so many suitcases. Others believe that the revolution will never penetrate beyond big city boundaries, where cell phone service becomes sparse and motorcyclists explore green country roads.

(Nobody, by the way, has announced any plans for autonomous motorcycles.)

Ten years ago, this future did not exist. It couldn't. A 1995 cell phone looked like a one-pound block of cheese and had an antennae as long as a shoelace. Today, 128 gigabytes of data can fit on an SD card the size of a Cheez-It cracker. This revolution rides on advances in microprocessor speed, memory chip size and wireless networking protocols, as well as the proliferation of cell phone towers and geostationary communication satellites. So far, most of these advances have found homes in smartphones and tablets. Apple, General Motors, Google, Ford, Toyota, and every other big auto manufacturer have plans to change all that.

The buzzword for this change is "car connectivity." It started a few years ago with programs like OnStar. General Motors inserted a SIM card into a vehicle, and the driver benefited from turn-by-turn navigation, emergency response and roadside assistance. Then the Apple iPod and iPhone went big. Auto makers rushed to install iPod compatibility and smartphone app services, and "infotainment" was born.

Today, equipped with something like Ford Sync, a car can do everything a smartphone can: search restaurant reviews, generate directions, stream music, narrate e-mails and so forth. These monetized connected services represent big bucks. By 2020, revenues are expected to top $152 billion. It's a new model of car shopping: the car gets cheaper, but the ongoing services get more expensive.

Modern cars have fistfuls of electronic systems: tire pressure monitors, wireless hotspots, Bluetooth connectivity, satellite internet, 4G LTE networking, mobile hotspots and so forth. These systems open up new customization possibilities. Tesla, for instance, installed an over-the-air software update for drivers who disliked the rabbit-like acceleration of the Roadster. The update desensitized the algorithm and allowed drivers to more easily cruise with traffic.

But even this sort of connectivity is not good enough. Even with voice-activated cabin controls and remote ignition, humans still push buttons and press pedals - and humans are "buggy." Two out of three Americans will be involved in a drunk driving accident during their lifetime. Hundreds of children are accidentally run over every year. Approximately 40 percent of teenagers admit to texting and driving. Roadside memorials, it would seem, are as common as fast food restaurants.

But with vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, could these deaths - disappear? Cars equipped with V2V technology continually relay their position and velocity, allowing each car to know exactly where everyone else is. Cars could take preemptive action. They could brake to avoid a rear-end collision. Think of it as adaptive cruise control on steroids.

Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) technology is a close cousin to V2V. Road signs could communicate with cars. A traffic light, for instance, could record congestion and warn oncoming drivers. If a drunk driver were careening down the highway in the wrong lane, all vehicles within range of the vehicle's WiFi network would be alerted and pulled over.

Not enough, say some. Don't just aid the driver; eliminate him.

It's not as radical as it sounds. Some 8 million New Yorkers trust self-driving trolley buses and subway systems for their weekday commutes. Already, five states allow autonomous automobiles, and major manufacturers like Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and Google have pledged to develop self-driving cars by 2020. Google's current prototype, an adorable two-seater with a top speed of 25 mph and a $70,000 LIDAR system, is currently puttering around Mountain View, California.

Hopes for self-driving cars rev high. Environmentalists believe that autonomous cars could optimize fuel efficiency by picking the shortest routes, adjusting vehicle speed with wind velocity, and "platooning," which is when a group of four or five cars move as one. The reduced air resistance improves fuel economy.

Such cars could park themselves. They could be shared. They could fit in smaller parking garages consolidated in high-traffic parts of town. For these reasons and more, some pundits estimate that autonomous vehicles could save 20 billion gallons of gasoline annually - if, and only if, they achieve 100 percent market penetration.

It could also, suggest others, expose America to a cyber-terrorist attack.

No one can hack the human brain - with the possible exception of David Blaine. Unsecured wireless networks, however, can be compromised with a computer genius and an iPad. As of now, no verified secure wireless protocol standard exists for connected cars. Critical and convenience systems are not segmented. Hacking someone's radio is one thing; hacking someone's brakes is another. And has everyone so easily forgotten the ubiquitous computer "crashes" of the 1990s?

These are legitimate concerns. But the connected cars of the Internet of Things are already on their way. Ready or not, here they come.

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