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Cisco unveils system to connect cars to Wi-Fi, 4G networks

Continental and Cisco showcased a connected vehicle system

Continental and Cisco showcased a connected vehicle system at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich. (Aug. 6, 2013) Credit: Cisco

The auto industry has been abuzz about connecting cars via wireless networks — a pathway toward better real-time traffic and navigation, more passenger entertainment features, safety-hazard warnings and eventually driverless cars — for years. Some proponents think driverless cars could be here within the decade; others suspect they won’t hit the mass market until 2025. Google, Audi and Lexus have already pioneered them, and in May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a multiyear study that should deliver an array of safety standards.

In the meantime, most automakers now offer smartphone-streamed connectivity to audio services such as Pandora to Stitcher. Some automakers enable limited Google searches and more using onboard internet. The Tesla Model S has a 17-inch center screen that allows you to surf the web like an iPad.

As some sort of connectivity becomes a requirement for just about any redesigned car, so too does the importance of a reliable network and network security. To address those needs, California’s Cisco Systems and Germany’s Continental AG teamed up to show a connected-car concept.

The concept, which will debut at the Center for Automotive Research’s annual Management Briefing Seminars in August, promises seamless switching between 3G, 4G and existing WiFi networks based on how much you want to pay versus the quality of service you want — an improvement, Cisco claims, over existing but slower services. A dedicated connected-car cloud service acts as a middleman to the internet, and both the cloud and car provide firewalls against cyber-attacks. Those attacks could threaten driver safety depending on which systems are compromised; researchers have demonstrated it can already happen today, prompting NHTSA to open a cyber-terrorism department in 2012.

Cisco claims each connected car can realize $1,400 per year in benefits, which range from cheaper pay-as-you-drive insurance and less time in traffic to fewer crashes.

In particular, it represents a "really fundamental change" for insurance providers, Andreas Mai, who manages Cisco’s connected-car group, told us Friday. "Vehicle connectivity ripples through their entire value chain. It helps prevent crashes. … It also helps [insurers] to reconstruct who is at fault and actually helps them to really control the cost."

"Last but not least, you will also spend less time stuck in traffic because if you have a large portion of the vehicles connected, you will also be able to circumvent the traffic jam," Mai said. "If you have the [vehicle] ecosystems communicate with each other … you can quintuple the capacity of one vehicle lane, and that has an obvious impact on how many roads you need to build long-term."

Even a few cars communicating could make a big difference, Mai said. That follows German research in 2011 that found if just 0.5% of cars on the road communicated with each other, it could reduce traffic substantially.

It’s all a bit of inside baseball; will consumers pay for it? Even Audi’s in-car wireless plan, which the automaker touts as the "industry's most competitively priced," runs about $15 a month. It remains to be seen how many people will pay for a long-term, in-car connection whose benefits are mostly savings — not tangibly better than what most consumers already have (and pay for) on their smartphones.

Mai said carmakers and other businesses, which could market their services to drivers, could pay for part of the cost: "We’ve identified over 70 different cost-reduction or profit pools," he said. "You have the potential to upsell services to give third parties access to your customers in exchange for a share of the profits they can make."

That could ultimately reduce the end cost to motorists, but it smacks of a future "Minority Report" where marketers know everything and advertise to you in real-time. Still, a Cisco survey in May found most Americans would be willing to divulge some information for a more personalized car experience.

To get there, the Cisco/Continental concept seems to promise a better version of what today’s smartphones and early in-car internet already enable: better security against hackers, no loss of signal as you traverse networks and stronger connectivity for traffic guidance or passengers’ Netflix. The connected cars of tomorrow may need this sort of network reliability; it looks like the technology of today could support it. 

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