Suppliers envision a car that competes with the smartphone

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As you back out of your driveway, your navigation system builds a route to the lakeside cabin you’ve rented for the weekend. Thanks to an app you’ve downloaded that contains the best driving roads as suggested by other users, you’ll be forgoing the highway for a fun, twisty route. From the passenger seat, your spouse turns on a few lights in the house, cues her Clay Aiken Pandora channel, and then navigates to her favorite blog. Your daughter, sitting in the back seat, has already donned her wireless headphones and is glued to the last 15 minutes of the latest “Glee” episode, which she had been watching on your couch just a minute ago. Next to her, your son has loaded a game of Tetris on his seatback screen to challenge his best friend who’s competing from a laptop fifteen miles away.

This is the future of in-car connectivity and it’s coming to vehicles in the next two to three years, according to a partnership of companies that hope to supply the technology to automakers. The NG Connect Program (NG stands for next-generation), from software maker QNX and communications company Alcatel-Lucent, previews how faster networks and a greater commitment to infotainment technology could revolutionize the in-car experience. For their Connected Car prototype, the companies have outfitted a Toyota Prius with four capacitive-touch screens that allow participants to interact with four separate applications, videos, games, or browsers.

Using forthcoming high-speed LTE networks (commonly referred to as 4G), data can transfer fast enough that streaming music, videos, and games can all be a part of the equation—simultaneously. In practical applications, LTE connections should serve data up about four times faster than current 3G networks. For our demonstration, we only had a 3G network, but still experienced the Connected Car vision of increasing the variety and capability of in-car media, watching YouTube videos, listening to Pandora, browsing the Internet, and perusing a fake app store.

But it’s not just the network that will allow the change. Automakers must also accept the idea of opening their products to applications and software designed by outsiders. Dan Dodge, CEO of QNX, tells us that automakers are “terrified” at that prospect, largely due to legal ramifications they may encounter, but they also realize if they don’t embrace the new expectations of buyers, they’ll become increasingly irrelevant. In many ways, the content shown on the Connected Cars is the star, more so than the underlying technology and network. The NG Connect Program partnership includes content from names Kabillion that provides games and cartoons for kids, Gamestreamer for instantaneous video game delivery, and Atlantic Records’ Fanbase. There are also ties with Intamac, a home automation company, and Chumby, maker of an Internet-enabled alarm clock. The Connected Car also mimicked an onboard diagnostic program that could read fluid levels, brake-pad thickness, and tire pressure, and suggest when and where service should be performed.

From the software side, QNX believes it is important to keep the architecture simple to encourage app programmers to allow their content on these new automotive platforms. That’s certainly a smart move, as new mobile operating systems have struggled to garner the App Store success that’s made the iPhone such a craze. By keeping the coding simple, QNX hopes they’ll be able to better encourage developers to create new apps for their platform. The core components for the Connected Car system are Adobe Flash, HTML5, and a data-handling schema for 3D graphics called Collada. For web interfaces, QNX uses WebKit, the same browser used on the iPhone.

Ultimately, manufacturers will have a say in how the technology is integrated. Several screens can be connected to work off one CPU, or the system can use multiple computers to boost performance. Hardware, software, owner-customization, and the network provider will all be dictated by the automaker, and it’s easy to imagine companies paring features as cost- or butt-saving measures. The NG Connect Program, though, has revealed that there’s no reason for car technology to lag two generations behind that of electronics. If automakers genuinely want their vehicles to invoke the excitement and passion that mobile electronics can, it’s clear that the era of constant catch-up has to end.

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