Sprint starts assembling a connected car dream team

At the LA Auto Show earlier this week Sprint(s s) revealed some big ambitions to become a major player in the automotive space. With its new Velocity initiative, Sprint doesn’t just seek to provide the radio component of the connected car. Instead, it aims to design and run every app and service used in the car from vehicle navigation to remote engine diagnostics. Those ambitions seem far beyond the capabilities of a mere carrier, but it turns out Sprint will have a lot of help.

As more details emerged this week about Velocity, it’s becoming apparent that Sprint is playing the role of a systems integrator, buying the technologies of several connected car vendors and assembling them into a complete package for its automotive customers. So far it’s tapped Airbiquity, which has developed software that bridges smartphone and vehicle apps; Aeris Communications, an M2M connectivity platform designer; and WirelessCar, a telematics company specializing in automotive applications.

But Sprint spokesman Walter Fowler said the carrier has many partners it hasn’t yet announced, each helping handle a different Velocity component, from navigation to infotainment app development. What does Sprint bring to the table then? Well, one component is connectivity. As automakers start injecting their vehicles with more remote diagnostic and command control capabilities — such as monitoring of electric vehicle battery charges, or the ability to lock and unlock your doors from across the city – they’ll need embedded radio modules.

“Not only do we want to play that part in the U.S., we have the global relationships to make it work internationally,” Fowler said. But Sprint that’s only a small part what Sprint hopes to sell with Velocity, Fowler said. Connected car services will need to be provisioned, apps distributed, customers billed and developers managed. In many ways cars are like big phones, and Sprint is accustomed to managing networks of millions of phones. That expertise is what Sprint will ultimately sell to automakers, Fowler said, even if it means sacrificing the network connectivity contract.

Network agnosticism is a bold claim for a carrier, which typically measures its success in subscriptions. But Airbiquity VP of marketing Leo McCloskey said it was an inevitable step. While many cars will eventually have some kind of embedded connectivity, they’ll be the lowest order links — simple 2G modules providing baseline data for remote command and control apps. The real money will be will in the infotainment and advanced multimedia features hosted in the dash, which will require mobile broadband connections.

Though carriers like Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) are still hoping that automakers will embed LTE in their vehicles, Detroit automakers and many of their international counterparts have adopted a bring-your-connectivity approach to those more advanced bandwidth-intensive features. And since car makers can’t control what smartphones their customers bring to their vehicles, they can’t control which networks will eventually connect their cars.

“This is going to be the biggest psychological jump carriers must take,” McCloskey said. “You can no longer care about who provides the connectivity.”

So far Sprint’s new approach seems to appeal to at least one automaker. Chrysler has committed to using Velocity in its UConnect Access system, the connected version of its UConnect infotainment platform, in the 2013 Ram 1500 pickup and in the new STR Viper testosterone wagon. This isn’t just a bare-bones system either. Wired Autopia got to play with the new vehicles, finding everything from remote lock/unlock and engine start, 911 assist and Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities, web-connected vehicle navigation and cloud-connected voice command and control functions – all connected back to a tethered smartphone.

Car mouse image courtesy of Shutterstock user Mopic