Visions of Cars and Clouds: Part 1

Ever since the first nineteenth-century steam-powered automobiles terrified a public accustomed to the less vigorous progress of horses and carts, humankind has been obsessed with the motor cars of the future. Today, a glance at the legions of car-and-driver magazines lining newsstand shelves is enough to prove our obsession with sleeker, faster, more powerful and smarter cars, that for most of us seem to remain perennially and tantalizingly just out of reach.

However, surprising and exciting technological innovations are a lot closer than we might realize. The hover cars of Hollywood may still be a distant and frankly impractical dream, but what’s in store in the coming years is going to transform our relationship with the car in much the same way that the Internet has revolutionized the way we interact with technology and each other. Intel is determined to be at the forefront of this evolutionary process, leading with its vision of an always-connected car bristling with intelligence. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content.]

In February 2012, Intel announced a variety of product development, research, academic and capital investments in the automotive industry, including a $100 million Intel Capital Connected Car fund. The sole aim of these investments is to drive technological innovations in the global automotive industry and bring the connected cars of the future to a driveway near you soon. In April, Intel also announced that it is working closely with Japanese car manufacturer Nissan Motor Company to power its next generation of in-vehicle infotainment systems, due to appear in selected production models starting in 2013. The partnership is just one of many that Intel is currently forging within the automotive industry.

Recently, Intel Software Adrenaline magazine took a closer look the company’s vision for the future of our everyday A-to-B workhorse and what that future might mean for the countless millions of drivers around the world.

Car Evolution

It’s certainly true that cars are already hives of impressive technology designed to serve their drivers and passengers in a variety of useful ways. The last three decades have seen in-car media systems evolve from removable cassette radios with manual tuning to all-singing, all-dancing multimedia systems capable of delivering audio visual entertainment from almost any imaginable source. At the same time, in-car navigation has itself taken an impressive journey from unwieldy and impossible-to-fold roadmaps obscuring the view of the road ahead, to electronic dashboard navigation systems replete with automatically updated maps of every road and byway, and a calming voice to soothe the brow of even the most hopelessly adrift motorist.

But these advances only hint at what cars are going to offer in the very near future. Imagine walking up to a rental car armed with only your phone and being able to instantly stream all your music using the in-car infotainment system, fire up your phone’s navigation app on the car’s dashboard, be told how far away your friends are that you’re planning to meet later, and reserve in advance a parking spot at your destination. Not only is the experience seamless and effortless, but it’s also done safely using voice and gesture controls, with the information you need (no more, no less) presented using an unobtrusive head-up display on the windshield, ensuring your hands are on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times. Sound like science fiction? It’s closer than you think.

Standard Problems

Recently car manufacturers have been hearing increasingly loud consumer voices asking for the kind of in-car always-on connectivity and access to remote cloud-based services that they take for granted outside of the car, with their own devices. To make this happen, the industry needs to develop common connectivity standards, the lack of which has been one of the major hurdles to delivering seamless connectivity in cars.

The car industry is traditionally vertically integrated, which has resulted in everyone essentially doing their own thing, producing closed ecosystems and hardware that work in their own idiosyncratic ways, however state-of-the-art the technology may be. This means that while one make of car may allow you to stream music from your phone using Bluetooth, another requires that you plug in your phone using an often unreliable mini-jack or even stereo RCA plugs, something we’re normally only exposed to when fiddling with wires in the dusty darkness at the back of an amplifier at home.

As someone who travels a great deal and drives a lot of rental cars, Ton Steenman, VP of the Intel Intelligent Systems Group, highlights another standards problem: “Every time I get in another rental car I have to re-learn a navigation system and how to enter the street address.” Common standards for in-car infotainment systems coupled with smartphone apps could eliminate both of these problems, allowing Steenman to use the same navigation system he always uses and listen to music without worrying about having the right connector, regardless of the car he finds himself driving.

Fostering Innovation

Intel is not an obvious stakeholder in the car world — a situation that plays strongly to its advantage. “Intel is viewed as a neutral player in this industry, which puts us in a unique position to help foster innovation,” says Steenman. It seems evident that while it’s difficult for an auto manufacturer to propose an industry-wide standard and expect its competitors to take heed, when the rallying cry comes from Intel, it’s more likely to be heard. One of the ways Intel capitalizes on its position is to help auto manufacturers face technological challenges that may be entirely new to them.

As Staci Palmer, general manager of Intel’s Automotive Solutions Division, explains, “In terms of their competencies, automakers have historically focused their differentiation around engine-related technologies, fuel efficiency, aesthetics and safety. Understanding consumer trends around information delivery and usability in the vehicle is still a relatively new concept to the automakers.”

Nissan Motor Company is one manufacturer that is keenly aware of the need to be able to effectively respond to consumer desires. “One of the key reasons they chose to work with Intel is our experience in consumer and IT-related technologies,” explains Palmer. “Nissan is interested in understanding what consumer usage models will be required and desired in the future. Our aim is to support solutions that will enable those future trends, in a driver-safe way.”

Intel and the Connected Car

Despite the recent flurry of announcements from Intel around the connected car, it’s a strategy that the company has been developing for a number of years. “We’ve been working in this industry, focused on in-vehicle infotainment, since around 2007,” confirms Palmer. “During this time we’ve worked with automakers and their top-tier suppliers to help them understand the benefits of deploying their solutions around Intel® architecture.”

“We’ve also taken a leadership role in promoting the use of open architectures and standards in the automotive industry,” continues Palmer. “For example, we were a co-founder of the Genivi consortia, a nonprofit industry alliance with the objective of driving the broad adoption of an open-source in-vehicle infotainment development platform. The initiative was launched in 2009 with eight members, including Intel, Wind River, BMW Group, PSA-Peugeot Citroën, GM, Visteon, Delphi, and Magneti-Marelli. Now there are more than 160 member companies.”

The Intel Capital Connected Car Fund is the latest investment in Intel’s pursuit of connected-car innovation. “The idea is that this fund can help foster and grow innovation in the industry,” says Palmer.

The thinking behind Intel’s strategy is straightforward. People want to be connected all the time, wherever they are and with whatever device they’re using, whether it’s their PC at work, laptop at home or smartphone on the move. They want to be able to use e-mail, social networks, games or any of the other myriad applications and cloud-based services they’re accustomed to having access to. One place people want to do that is on the road, where we spend a great deal of time. “On average, across the world, people spend two months of their waking hours in a car annually,” saysSteenman; yet the car is a weak link in the chain, often being far from the optimal connected environment we seek.