Commuter future: Connected car talks to the world

AT&T envisions the connected car doing most things a smartphone can, and more (AT&T)

WASHINGTON — Need to accomplish something? Tell your car about it.

AT&T envisions drivers and passengers in a connected car engaging with the rest of the world effortlessly, enjoyably and safely.

While OnStar and Bluetooth are already integrating communications technology into cars, AT&T is developing and talking about ways a vehicle would be able to accomplish most of the things that are currently being done on smartphones — and more.

Jason Harrison, director of emerging enterprises and partnerships with the telecommunications giant, says a fully-connected car will benefit consumers and manufacturers.

Harrison says that, using the company’s 4G LTE high-speed data network, the connected car could handle video and voice-controlled apps, while providing real-time diagnostics of how the car is performing.

For example, Harrison says, several recent auto recalls have been for software- based problems.

Instead of the current challenge of scheduling a service call to update software, Harrison says a connected car could be updated without a time-consuming trip to the dealer.

“If the ability for an over-the-air update to the vehicle existed, we could have managed that for the auto partner while the vehicles were sitting idle overnight in a garage,” says Harrison.

In addition, future cars will generate thousands of data points, providing drivers and auto dealers with information that could predict potential vehicle problems before they happen.

Outside the car, behind the wheel

In an informal demonstration at AT&T Innovation Center in Northwest D.C., Harrison says owners of a connected car will be able to engage with their vehicle even if they’re not near it.

Using a smartphone app, Harrison says, a connected car would provide important safety information.

“Maybe it’s late at night, your car’s in the parking lot. You activate the front, side, rear camera of the car. Let’s do a 360-view car, and make sure it’s good to go out there.”

Still, the majority of benefits of connected cars will be felt by people within the vehicle, says Harrison. The biggest current buzzword is “infotainment.”

“It means making your commute or your ride more entertaining, more convenient, more productive, but all in a more safe manner,” says Harrison. “Safety is our No. 1 focus.”

Within the next few years, Harrison says, AT&T will facilitate portable hot spots in the connected car, which can provide an Internet connection.

“This will be for the passengers who connect to that hot spot, and who brought in their phones and tablets and Touches — even some personal gaming devices can be connected to the vehicle,” says Harrison.

AT&T already partners with Famigo, a subscription service that controls children’s access to smartphones and tablets.

Harrison says a parent might want to hand his or her phone to a child during a long trip.

“You’re able to lock the device, give it to your kid, and the child can’t access the email or phone function,” says Harrison. “It becomes a portal in to kid- friendly browsing and games, so we think it’s really relevant for the vehicle.”

Smarter than smartphones

Harrison says the company’s research at its AT&T Drive Studio in Atlanta has developed voice recognition software that works better and “smarter” than current software.

Voice technology can help drivers keep their hands on the wheel and attention to the road, says Harrison.

“Rather than picking the phone up, the car says ‘You have an email that came in,’ and you can say ‘Read it to me.”

A major focus for AT&T’s voice-recognition technology is enabling the system to keep strings of conversation in context.

Harrison offers an example where current software fails.

“If I say ‘Tell me the top 5 steak houses in D.C.,’ the current speech engines could do that,” says Harrison. “They’d do a web search and say ‘I found these.’ But if you then said ‘Tell me more about No. 3,’ the current in-market solutions would do a web search for the No. 3,” rather than the third steak house choice.

Harrison says some vehicles are already communicating with buildings, traffic lights, and roads. Eventually, they will engage with other vehicles.

Vehicles interacting with each other could save energy, says Harrison, describing how cars traveling in a close pack could be more aerodynamically efficient.

Researchers have been working on crash-avoidance technology for driverless cars. While the technology is progressing quickly, Harrison expects it will take longer for state and local governments to figure out what will be allowed.

“Some say autonomous driving could be four to five years out, and crash avoidance would be a key piece of autonomous driving,” says Harrison.

So far, AT&T has negotiated arrangements with GM, BMW, Audi and Volvo.

While some car manufacturers are offering the connectivity as a feature in their most expensive cars, Harrison says it’s likely that practice won’t last long.

“A lot of research would point to this technology as more important for the younger generation,” says Harrison. “Connectivity is more important for the 20-somethings and teens, and those individuals might not always be in a super high-end luxury model vehicle.”

Despite its financial stake in the development of new connected car technology, Harrison says the AT&T features will work with other carriers as well.

“Our auto partners need flexibility. They understand not everyone in the U.S. is an AT&T customer, and we understand that as well. So we’re creating solutions that will enable these great experiences across platforms and carriers,” says Harrison.

See AT&T’s vision of a connected car in a promotional video:

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