In the simplest of terms, a connected car is one that has the ability to wirelessly communicate with other devices. It can be a relatively simple interface like a smartphone connection that allows music playback, a link to the manufacturer that allows the vehicle’s software to be updated without a service appointment, or a remote connection to the owner’s smart home system.

All these convenience features and many more are available today, and are largely unremarkable. Adoption of the connected car has been swift and, again, largely unremarkable. The communication technologies that allow connectivity already exist in the everyday smartphone, and the internet is accessible from anywhere on earth. A manufacturer’s app that remotely turns on the seat warmers seems like nothing more than a new toy, soon to be forgotten.

What is a connected car anyway?

However, cars can also be connected to each other and the road infrastructure around them. They can be programmed to travel safely in tight groups at high speed, anticipating traffic signs and signals, reacting to changing road conditions, and avoiding accidents by seeing hazards half a mile or more down the road.

All these connected technologies together add up to nothing short of a revolution. The connected car promises to be the biggest safety advance since the seat belt, and will be the biggest change to the way we drive since the horse was put out to pasture.

What, exactly, is the car connecting to?

There are two basic categories of car connectivity. The first is cellular such as 4G and the upcoming 5G, which includes communication, internet and/or cloud services. Cloud services are the ones we use every day on our smartphones. Want to hear a music track? Your device sends a request to a server which sends the coded music back to the device, allowing it to be played. Need directions? Your connected device searches for GPS satellites, cell towers, wireless connections, or a combination thereof to position itself, then requests map data from a server, perhaps with a few restaurant recommendations from the internet thrown in for good measure. Whether display is on laptop or in a car, the function is the same and, again, relatively unremarkable.

This kind of connectivity also allows for the Internet of Things (IoT) to be accessed. The IoT is, basically, anything that has an on/off connection to the internet, from a toaster to a home air conditioner to various components in a car. The toaster can access the latest time and temperature recipes for various breads. A home air conditioner can be turned on while the homeowner is sitting in traffic, ensuring a comfy house at dinner time. A car’s main computer can receive a new operating system.

The second kind of car connectivity is dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). DSRC allows cars to securely and privately talk to each other, as well as the infrastructure around them, a collectively system called vehicle-to-everything (V2X). It has extremely low latency (it’s fast) and enables the high data transmission rates necessary to manage multiple vehicles in traffic.

In the the future, DSRC will work in sync with cellular technology to keep cars connected.

Connected car features available today

Most manufacturers today offer some level of connectivity, whether it be in the form of an in-dash system that connects the car to existing apps and services, or more involved experience that allows drivers such features as scheduling service appointments, having the car refueled, or controlling a smart home systems.

A quick sampling of available services demonstrates the breadth of today’s connected car ecosystem. There are, of course, dozens more applications available, and the list is growing every day.

Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto put select apps right on the car’s built-in display. Streaming music, directions, text messaging, and phone calls are available in the native format, and can be accessed in a way that doesn’t distract the driver.

Volvo Concierge Service

In days of yore, luxury meant never having to touch anything or talk to anyone. Volvo brings back this tradition with Concierge Services. Using an app, drivers can order fuel, cleaning, or service. A one-time digital key is sent to the authorized provider, allowing access to the vehicle. The tank can be filled while the owner is at work, overnight cleaning can be scheduled, or maintenance can be performed while the owner is traveling.

Amazon Alexa

Ford is linking its SYNC system to home automation devices like Amazon Alexa, allowing consumers to control lights and thermostats from the car. While at home, the system interacts with the car, allowing it, for example, to be warmed up, unlocked, and ready to go on cold days. Driving the vehicle requires a proximity key, discouraging theft.

Alexa also offers a broad range of additional voice-activated services, such as a location search that transfers the destination to navigation, audiobook search and play, and shopping.

OnStar Go

General Motors has combined its OnStar communication system with IBM’s Watson to create OnStar Go, expected to released early this year. With the customer’s consent, Watson learns the driver’s preferences and habits to make time in the car more productive and enjoyable. For example, Watson can make restaurant recommendations for drivers far from home, locate a fuel station and handle automated payments, or place and pay for a coffee order.

But what about hacking?

There are dozens of processors on a vehicle and they are wired into everything: engines and transmissions, brake actuators, seat belt pre-tensioners, automatic trunk closers, and more. These electronics and their predecessors have been in vehicles for generations now, and the software that runs them has built up year after year, layer after layer. There are literally millions, even tens of millions of lines of computer code necessary to make all these components work properly, and that number is only expected to go up in the future. This older, less secure software is everywhere and could be vulnerable to attack.

Recently, stories of vehicles being taken over by hackers exposing security flaws in those systems have made headlines. The transmission, braking, acceleration, and steering were all controlled remotely and the driver was placed in a dangerous and terrifying situation.

What was a bit underreported at the time, however, was that the hackers involved were researchers, not criminals, and that it took them about a year to gain control of the vehicle. They also used a hard connection, a cable plugged into the subject vehicle, in order to understand and break into the system

The flaws those researchers exposed have made cars more secure by highlighting the need to separate the control side of the vehicle from internet-connected systems. Yes, criminal hackers do exist and are likely working on ways to compromise vehicles in the future but, to date, no vehicle’s control systems have ever been successfully tampered with in the wild.

Smartphone hacks, on the other hand, are very real. Without security protocols in place, malicious software can unknowingly be downloaded from the internet or even hidden inside a totally unrelated app. This software looks for a automotive control app and launches invisibly alongside it. The vehicle’s credentials and passwords are recorded and transmitted, allowing the car can to be located, unlocked, and sometimes even started for a brief time. However, because of the previous research work, the control systems in most cars are disconnected from the smartphone app. Simple two factor authentication, fingerprint recognition, or proximity key requirements would also avoid the hack entirely.

Hacking is indeed a concern, but manufacturers and suppliers are working hard to keep connected cars safe, and to make them more so in the future.

What’s next?

Connected cars might seem like little more than the latest gadget, but the advances those gadgets pioneered will soon make driving safer and more efficient than ever. As semi-autonomous car components such as automatic emergency braking become industry standard, connectivity has more of a pivotal role than ever in near-future vehicles.

V2X

Cars use DSRC to connect to each other and the road around them. Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) is two short-range, wireless-based technologies designed from the ground up to be both private and secure: vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I). Their main function is to prevent accidents and save lives.

V2V works by transmitting and receiving key data such as vehicle position, speed, direction of travel, braking and steering input. Additional systems spot pedestrians, road hazards, emergency vehicles, unsafe drivers, and more. V2I  sends information about things like traffic lights, construction projects, bridge height, spot weather reports, and crosswalk location. Working as one system, V2X creates a complete picture of the driving conditions surrounding the vehicles.

While V2X is still in the future, all of the individual technologies exist and are widely available on cars today. The industry is currently working with planners and lawmakers on the next steps, and there is a definite need for the system. The Department of Transportation estimates that 80 percent of all traffic accidents for unimpaired drivers can be avoided using the safety technologies enabled by V2X, allowing risks to be identified before a collision is imminent. Vehicles equipped with automated driving functions such as automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control will benefit even more.

A future group of V2V-enabled vehicles will travel together in a convoy that acts kind of like a school of fish or flock of birds, one group made of myriad individual movements and fluctuations. If a pothole is detected in one lane, the impacted car will swerve slightly to avoid it, but other vehicles may not have to. Drivers can join or leave the convoy; there is no leader. The cars can be tightly packed together at high speed, taking advantage of group aerodynamics to improve fuel economy.

In city traffic, speed is adjusted so that red lights and other stops are avoided. Crosswalks broadcast their pedestrian occupants, and the vehicles avoid impacts. Emergency vehicles are automatically given the right of way, improving public safety. The position of empty parking spaces is broadcast, putting an end to circling the block. No one gets rear-ended at stoplights by some fool who can’t put down the cellphone, because both vehicles are paying attention.

Next Steps

The individual technologies that create the connected car are advancing at breakneck speed. Manufacturers are now working together with suppliers and lawmakers to bring all the pieces together as a whole. Companies such as General Motors, Qualcomm, and Microsoft have invested heavily in the technologies, and face stiff competition from competitors.

GM is committed to bringing V2X to market, and has been actively working for over a decade with other companies and organizations to develop mature DSRC standards in the US and Europe. Now ready for adoption, GM is bringing its latest V2X research and development to China, which is soliciting advice on the protocols. Here at home, GM is launching V2V in the 2017 Cadillac CTS.

As the cellular market reaches full saturation and therefore declining growth, companies such as Qualcomm are looking to the connected car to increase revenues. The average American spends 46 minutes per day in the car, so cellular connectivity makes sense for music playback, streaming movies for the kids, and navigation systems. Qualcomm released Snapdragon processors and modems specifically for the automotive market, including data collection, analytics, parking assistance, and wireless electric vehicle charging, as well as infotainment.

Microsoft has launched its Connected Vehicle Platform to speed up connected car development, built on the Azure cloud platform. Unlike car manufacturers, Microsoft already has and continually develops a living, agile, cloud-based platform. The software giant is working with several manufacturers and developing telematics, predictive services, in-car productivity, advanced navigation, advanced driver assistance systems, and autonomous vehicle development assistance.

People spend an inordinate amount of time in their vehicles; Americans average roughly 46 minutes per day. Connected cars offer a plethora of safety, comfort, and convenience advantages with only a slight increase in cost. All the manufacturers are on board, the communications and information companies are on board, and even lawmakers around the world are moving to embrace the benefits of connectivity.

The connected car is here to stay.