The technology inside the car has changed dramatically over the years. ConnectedDrive is the culmination of a vision.
For all the engineering progress they represent, the automobile’s basic mechanics – four wheels and an engine, with provisions for braking and steering – haven’t really changed much over the last 120 years. The technology inside the car, on the other hand, has changed dramatically since Blaupunkt installed the first AM radio in a Studebaker in 1932. In-car telephones became available in 1971, satellite navigation in 1995. The following year, Cadillac’s OnStar System effectively combined the two technologies to create the world’s first interactive automobile; one that could contact emergency responders in case of a crash, relay diagnostic information to the dealership or even just help the driver find the nearest dry cleaners.
If OnStar was the thin end of a wedge, that has since been widened by technologies like Ford’s Sync and by Toyota’s partnership with Microsoft, the vision ConnectedDrive is its culmination. The car introduced by BMW at the Geneva Auto Salon demonstrates what’s possible in in-car infotainment, at least theoretically. If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on at BMW’s Palo Alto Technology Office, the Vision ConnectedDrive is your answer. It’s effectively a rolling smartphone, an information hub that provides access to the digital universe while also taking you to real-world destinations. Since that begs the question, “Why not just use my smartphone in the car?” BMW presented the vision concept along with three potential scenarios meant to illustrate a way in which its ConnectedDrive functions might be used in the real world.
Scenario 1: A better way to go to lunch. Entering the vision, a solo driver connects his smartphone to the car via Bluetooth. Synchronizing with the smartphone’s calendar, the vision learns that the driver is on his way to lunch with a friend. His destination is automatically entered in the car’s navigation system, which determines the best route given traffic conditions and also tells the driver where to find parking upon arrival.
While en route, the driver receives a text message from his lunch companion, who informs him that the restaurant is crowded and asks him to suggest an alternative. The driver reads the message loudly, activates BMW Assist and asks the operator for a recommendation. Once the driver agrees on a new destination, the Concierge Service makes a reservation and updates the nav system. Guidance begins anew, again with recommendations for parking. Using speech-to-text, the driver sends a text message to his companion with the new location. The car is downloading a micro-map to his smartphone, which will provide walking directions from the parking garage to the restaurant. As far as parking itself is concerned, all he has to do is drive into the garage’s foyer and the car will drive itself into a parking slot once he exits the vehicle.
How realistic is all of that? Depends on where you live. While parking availability isn’t yet networked in the U.S., it’s already a reality in Germany, and drivers anywhere can send micro-maps to their smartphones for help in finding their destinations once they leave the car. Self-parking cars are a reality, too, but they still require the driver to remain inside the vehicle, although mostly for insurance reasons. And while most new BMWs can already read text and e-mail messages out loud, they can’t yet send them using speech-to-text; message dictation is being developed that will make this possible in the near future.
Scenario 2: Another scenario for the vision ConnectedDrive takes the original OnStar concept of interactive safety to its zenith, offering assistance not merely in the aftermath of a crash but with the hope of avoiding one in the first place. As the car rolls down the road, its 3D Head-Up Display is providing the driver with information about vehicle speed, fuel consumption and driving directions, the latter of which are displayed in augmented reality graphics that mimic the street itself. The car’s sensors are scanning the space around the car and along the route. When they detect a problem up ahead – perhaps the failure of a series of traffic lights – the vehicle projects a warning into the Head-Up Display. The system can also warn of a pending collision if the other cars on the road aren’t taking the signal failure into account, or if another car makes an erratic move such as pulling out from a parking space into the vision’s path. The sensors, which see the hazard, do warn the driver visually and apply the brakes to reduce speed and jolt him into action.
That scenario outlines just a few of the possibilities of Car2Car communication. The sensors and displays needed for Car2Car already exist, and aspects of it are present in technologies like Active Cruise Control and Lane Departure Warning, that are already featured on top-line sedans like the 7 Series. To become fully operational, however, Car2Car will require more widespread networking, which is certainly on the way.
Scenario 3: Emotional browsing. If the networked universe can be accessed to make us safer, it can also be used to facilitate our fun, and that’s the point being illustrated in BMW’s third scenario for the vision ConnectedDrive. Of course, a lot of the technology in use for this scenario could fall within the category of “driver distraction”, so BMW takes pains to emphasize that these features are meant to be used by the passenger, not the driver.
She’s got a screen of her own for that purpose, and it can do a lot more than just play movies. It can also access the “Emotional Browser”, BMW’s name for its interactive guide to the world around us. Like the Domus architecture guides or Prairie Design’s FanGuides to U.S. cities, both available as apps for the iPhone, the Emotional Browser can provide information about the architecture of the buildings near the car, delivering detailed data to the passenger and more basic facts to the driver via the Head-Up Display. If a building appeals, still more information can be obtained, and it can become the nav system’s new destination. If it’s a museum, tickets to the exhibition going on inside can be purchased en route. More fantastically, the vision also imagines itself passing a cafe known to play good music, which the Emotional Browser makes available as an audio stream.
Like the networking functions outlined in the other scenarios, the location-based features in this scenario are already available to a certain extent thanks to the Google search and “send to car” functions present in current BMWs with sat-nav. Semantic information processing allows the system to tailor its services to the user’s preferences more carefully than ever before. It also takes advantage of the possibilities afforded by cloud computing, which allows the car’s music selection to be virtually unlimited, unlike a storage device such as a CD or MP3 player.
A computer for driving All three scenarios highlight the vision ConnectedDrive’s role as a natural extension of our relationship with the devices we use every day, like smartphones, computers, and television, integrating them into the vehicle, in which many of us spend a great deal of our time. As such, the vision ConnectedDrive just might be the perfect expression of the current automotive zeitgeist.
The rapid pace of technological innovation, that makes the technology inside the vision ConnectedDrive possible, also threatens to make it go the way of the car phone and the fax machine long before the vehicle’s powertrain and chassis are ready to give up the ghost.
Those, who fear the worst, can take some reassurance, however, that BMW chose Apple and Google as its technology partners. Toyota’s partnership with Microsoft for its own rolling smartphone project might be a different thing altogether – just wait until your Prius tries to run Windows.