Visions of Cars and Clouds: Part 2

Technology is driving the automotive industry forward, and Intel is at the forefront of the trend. This is part 2 of “Visions of Cars and Clouds”; check out part 1 here. [Disclosure: Intel is the sponsor of this content.]

Smart Parking
One perilous situation where the connected car leaps to the rescue is in the hunt for a rare city parking spot. The time we spend searching for a place to park in a busy town center, and the secondary effect of that in terms of overall traffic levels, can be significant. “Today the general statistic that you hear from a lot of big cities is that about 30 percent of the traffic is generated by people looking for parking places,” says Ton Steenman, VP of the Intel Intelligent Systems Group.

In the context of a major urban center, that’s an enormous amount, and anything that makes the process of parking easier will have the double benefit of reducing driving stress and traffic load. Once again, the connected car of tomorrow has the answer, thanks to its ability to communicate with the city infrastructure in a meaningful way.

“When there is communication between the in-vehicle system and the infrastructure, you can imagine parking solutions where you’re actually guided to an open parking location,” explains Steenman. “You can even reserve a parking location through your infotainment system.” The idea of never again being forced to crawl endlessly around a city center’s one-way grid searching for that one remaining parking spot is certainly very appealing.

Information Overload
The problem is that we can easily have too much data; if it’s not filtered and presented in an understandable way, the information becomes useless. With the car clearly being one of the most mass-marketed products, and with its use crossing every demographic boundary, the connected car must be able to create information that is usable, no matter who is at the wheel.

“The challenge is that a great deal of information is available that in effect never has to actually reach the driver, but today it does,” says Steenman. “Most of it might be contextually irrelevant, and as a result the critical information gets lost.”

“As more information becomes available, it’s critical that the industry process that data in an intelligent manner so the drivers are presented with data that’s relevant given the environment they are in,” continues Steenman. “Filtering and context are very important.”

Open Platform
Cars exist that are already equipped with sophisticated infotainment systems that allow a high level of connectivity; however, much of the existing hardware was developed using closed, proprietary technology. The best way to keep pace with technological innovations is through the use of a platform that is flexible and adaptable, and Intel is pushing for a more open approach that will let developers bring ideas and innovations to any connected car.

The relentless advances in hardware and software technology demand that every piece of technology we use be upgradable, from OS updates in our smartphones to invisible upgrades of the cloud-based services we use online. This ability to upgrade in order to keep pace with the raging torrent of new technology applies just as much to cars. Regardless of how clever it is, a closed, proprietary in-car system is of no use to the developer who wants to build a smartphone app that takes advantage of an emerging technology or idea, or to the automaker who wants to deliver seamless connectivity with the latest consumer device. To remove this obstacle, the platform needs to be open.

“We need to make sure that that middleware in the vehicle can be continuously upgraded, so as the consumer-device industry continues to evolve with different types of smartphones and upgrades to Bluetooth and USB standards, the middleware in the vehicle can be upgraded easily as well,” says Steenman. “Today this is very complex to do because the platform is closed. By making the platform more open there’s a better opportunity to create that upgradability.”

The Road Ahead
If Steenman has a vision for what Intel’s program will ultimately deliver, it is a situation where anyone can walk up to any car with any kind of connected device, and the car and the device will seamlessly integrate. “We believe that when the development environment for the connected car is more open, there’s an opportunity to do that and to let the car continue to evolve in parallel with consumer-device evolution,” he says.

“Everybody wants to get from point A to point B in an efficient and economical manner, and the many applications that will be invented and provided will soon unleash the power of the connected car,” continues Steenman. “We want to demonstrate commitment to the industry, and our investments show the industry that we are serious about automotive innovation.”

Intel’s work to develop open standards for connected cars, alongside the Intel Capital Connected Car Fund, automotive research programs, and Intel’s partnerships with the automotive industry, is creating interesting new opportunities for software developers.

“We are helping the industry transition to an open and a standardized platform that will allow application and services innovation both in the car and in the cloud,” concludes Steenman. “As this comes to market, the software community will have a tremendous opportunity to start participating by bringing new innovation to vehicles.”

Safety First
The desire to remain connected while on the road has had a major impact on the laws governing what we can do behind the wheel in direct response to the threat posed to road safety. Regardless of our driving expertise and the number of laws passed banning the use of mobile phones at the wheel, serious accidents caused by phone use are a significant blemish on our collective driving record.

According to World Health Organization statistics, more than 1.2 million people are killed on the world’s roads each year, with an additional 50 million injured. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that driver error -- which includes such actions as driving under the influence of alcohol, careless lane changes, and driving while distracted by, for example, a mobile phone -- is a factor in upward of 60 percent of road fatalities.

“Many U.S. states and countries around the world have laws precluding the use of phones,” says Staci Palmer, general manager of Intel’s Automotive Solutions Division. “You shouldn’t have a phone in your hand while driving, but there is still the desire on the part of many consumers to be connected some other way. At Intel we believe that can be done in a driver-safe way, and the automakers are best placed to enable that.”

The use of smartphones at the wheel not only poses a significant safety risk, but also compromises usability. Intel wants to encourage the kind of innovations that let drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road while enhancing ease-of-use and accessibility to devices.

By allowing seamless connectivity with personal devices and by shifting to gesture and voice control, the hope is that we can be weaned off the need to handle our phones at the wheel and have access to much more than relying on a few hasty taps at the traffic lights.

But the connected car is not just about preventing us from using phones while driving. Many cars are already equipped with distance sensors, and developers are exploring a number of different systems that will alert drivers to the proximity of other vehicles. Cars will also be able to sense when they are drifting out of the lane and alert the driver.

Eye tracking is another interesting technology that Intel has been actively involved in developing. Cameras mounted in the cabin can see where passengers are sitting in the car, and, more importantly, where they’re looking. If the driver takes his or her eyes off the road, the car would recognize that and could sound a warning.

From A to B in One Piece
One of the most obvious uses of connected cars is in making the task of reaching any destination more efficient and less stressful. That means developing advanced navigation with real-time contextual data to help drivers avoid snarl-ups and accidents.

There is vast potential for the entire transportation infrastructure to become more proactive, as connected cars become capable of connecting to the roadway, to safety systems, and to one another. Perhaps one of the most terrifying experiences behind the wheel is when fast-moving traffic ahead slows for no apparent reason, leaving us no choice but to hit the brakes as we rush toward the cars in front of us. One of the connectivity goals is to facilitate communication between cars so that, for example, a car that has suddenly been forced to slow down would transmit a warning to other vehicles in the vicinity, giving drivers a vital few extra seconds to respond.

Cars will also be able to proactively share live information on heavy traffic, road work, and other unpredictable hazards on the road ahead, offering information beyond what most current navigation systems are capable of delivering. “Everybody knows you get some sort of traffic information from your navigation system today, but it’s highly unreliable because it’s delayed and often out of date,” says Steenman. “If that information is real-time and reliable it becomes the foundation for getting you efficiently from point A to point B.”

Photo: Corbis Images

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,” says Steenman; yet the car is a weak link in the chain, often being far from the optimal connected environment we seek

Open Source in Portlandia

As if you need a reason to visit Beervana, the Open Source Bridge, June 26-29 in Portland, Oregon, just put it at the top of your list. This open source conference connects developers across projects, languages, and backgrounds.

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That’s just a taste of what’s in store. If you can make it to Portland, follow @osbridge on Twitter for live updates from the event.

For more on open source, and to talk about the life of the developer, follow @IntelAdrenaline