Cars aren’t just connecting to the internet; they’re connecting to everything

As in previous years, we’re seeing a lot of car connectivity news at the Consumer Electronics Showcase, but an interesting theme is emerging at this year’s conference. We’re starting to see the automobile take its place among the internet of things, connecting not just to smartphones, but also wearables, the smart home and even the roads and vehicles around them.

When a smart watch is also a key fob

You can connect a smartphone to a lot of vehicle these days. But [company]Hyundai[/company] has done one better. It’s linking Android Wear watches to its Blue Link infotainment and telematics system. The app will let you unlock and start your car with a tap of a screen icon or even a voice command. What’s better is this isn’t some concept tech. It will work on Hyundai Blue Link systems going back to its first generation in 2012 Sonata, and the app will be available for download on Google Play this quarter.

The Blue Link app soon to be available on Android Wear devices

The Blue Link app soon to be available on Android Wear devices

We’re also starting to see more linkages between the smart car and the smart home courtesy of Nest and Automatic, the maker of the popular plug-in module that will turn your unconnected car into a connected one. Now your Nest can coordinate with your Automatic module to set your home’s temperature. Instead of turning on the AC or heat when you walk in the door, Automatic can let Nest know when you’re 15 minutes from your garage based on your driving patterns and therefore start cranking the thermostat well before you arrive.

That’s a pretty basic application, but we’re starting to see more ties between apps in the home and car through services like IFTTT and after-market devices like Automatic and Mojio, but hopefully we can soon start eliminating those middlemen. At CES, [company]Ford[/company] demoed its new Sync 3 connected infotainment system publicly for the first time, and one of its features is the ability to talk directly to your home network through Wi-Fi. Ford is only using that connection for software updates today, but Ford executive director of connected vehicles and services Don Butler told me recently that Ford plans to use Wi-Fi as a bridge between the home and car in the future.

And lest we forget smartphones, we saw one of the world’s biggest automakers, Volkswagen, commit to supporting [company]Apple[/company]’s CarPlay and [company]Google[/company]’s Android Auto software in vehicles released this year in Europe and the U.S. Most of the auto industry is doing the same, though most automakers are being pretty vague on the timelines.

What’s interesting about the VW announcement is that [company]Volkswagen[/company] is already supporting an alternate smartphone overlay system called MirrorLink, and it will continue to include it in its vehicles. We’re starting to see automakers open up to multiple different means of connecting smartphones to a car, and based on my conversations with car OS makers like [company]BlackBerry[/company] QNX, this will be the norm among car companies. That’s great because ultimately it will give consumers choice, which is something we lack in a lot of connected car systems today.

Cycles, snowy roads and internet-connected salt trucks

[company]Volvo[/company] and POC were on hand at CES showing off their prototype cycling helmet, which can communicate with Volvo cars to help both cyclist and driver avoid collisions. My colleague David Meyer covered the technology last month, but as he pointed out the chances of it actually preventing accidents in the real world were pretty slim.

Volvo POC cycle helmet

But I give credit to Volvo for experimenting with the concept of making cars part of larger transportation network. Of all of the automakers it’s been looking into ways to linking vehicles to infrastructure and the roads they drive on.

One of the most interesting examples is work Volvo doing with [company]Ericsson[/company] and local government agencies in Sweden to use embedded road sensors in its cars to determine snow and ice conditions on streets and highways. By crowdsourcing data from thousands of vehicles driving on roads in real times, city crews know where and when they need to send out their salt trucks to de-ice the pavement.


Subaru cars go 4G while OnStar starts teaching driver’s ed

CES is becoming quite the show of late for automakers and their suppliers to show off new connected car technologies, and this year’s annual Vegas tech extravaganza was no exception. Here are some of the more interesting automotive announcements I saw coming out of the show.

[company]Subaru[/company] is joining the 4G car movement, announcing deals at CES with [company]AT&T[/company] to build LTE connectivity directly into 2016 vehicles (though Subaru didn’t say which makes), which means they’ll likely make their way to dealers this summer or fall. And what will Subaru owners do with that connection? The automaker is upgrading its StarLink infotainment system with telematics apps, and presumably it will be able to use 4G to feed apps like Pandora that are already making it into Subaru dashboards.

If you’re a [company]GM[/company] owner, you can already use OnStar to call for help when your car breaks down or get directions to the nearest gas station, but GM wants its driving assistant to wear many more hats, including those of a concierge, mechanic and driving instructor. GM is adding new features to OnStar that will allow its advisors to book hotel rooms, restaurant tables as well as alert you to discounts and special offers from retailers.

A new OnStar diagnostic feature will start analyzing car systems like the battery and fuel pump and notify owners about potential problems before they occur. And this summer OnStar will offer a driving feedback service that rates your performance behind the wheel and offers tip on how to improve. GM is also partnering with [company]Progressive[/company] to offer insurance discounts to customers who rate highly in the program.

UIEvolution revealed on Monday that it has developed a new in-car networking technology using Bluetooth Low Energy. Called BlueSync, the network uses proximity to detect when a smartphone is in the vehicle, just like Bluetooth beacons can sense if you’re in a particular area of a store. Those devices can then automatically link to the dashboard without going through any kind of pairing procedure and gain access to certain features in the car’s infotainment system.

For instance, a passenger could send an address directly to the car’s navigation system or gain access to the volume or air conditioning controls via a remote link. BlueSync could also be used as verification system to grant passengers access to the in-vehicle Wi-Fi network.


Volvo, Ericsson and POC show off crash-avoidance cycling helmet

A trio of Swedish firms — car manufacturer Volvo, helmet maker POC and networking outfit Ericsson — have announced a collaboration around the avoidance of collisions between cars and cyclists.

At the Consumer Electronics Show next month, the companies will show off a system that determines when the helmet-wearing cyclist and a Volvo driver are likely to crash into one another. The driver will get a warning through the car’s heads-up display, and the cyclist will be alerted through a flashing light in the helmet.

Volvo POC cycle helmetThe POC helmet will need to connect to Volvo’s cloud through a location-tracking app such as Strava, while the car will need to be one of the newer Volvos that already use radar and cameras to detect cyclists and automatically brake when a collision is imminent.

It’s a nice idea, and one that should draw attention to Volvo’s noble ambition that “nobody should die or be seriously injured in a new Volvo by the year 2020.” However, POC’s gear is pricey and Volvo is just one car brand — realistically speaking, this tie-up is unlikely to be of use to many people for now.

Until this sort of connected travel tech becomes more ubiquitous, drivers and cyclists alike would be best advised to just keep an eye where they’re going.

Here’s a video to watch (while not on the move):


Ford axes MyFord Touch, replacing it with a new in-dash system

Ford is replacing the much-reviled MyFord Touch with a new infotainment system based on Sync AppLink, its more successful in-dash connected car platform. The new system will be called Sync 3, and it will start rolling off lots in model year 2015 Fords and Lincolns and completely replace MyFord Touch in 2016.

The nomenclature [company]Ford[/company] uses for its connected car system is a bit confusing because, like all automakers, Ford has different hardware and software packages for different vehicles. Ford just takes the extra-confusing step of giving all them different names. What it boils down to is this is: Sync is the name of the voice command and control system available in almost all Ford vehicles. AppLink is the operating system available in many Sync-enabled Fords that lets you integrate apps from your smartphone into the dashboard. Finally, MyFord Touch (or MyLincoln Touch) is the touchscreen-controlled infotainment system used in fancier cars and trucks.

The MyFord Touch interface

The MyFord Touch interface

The odd thing is that Ford’s lower-end platform, AppLink, has been far more successful and useful than its higher-end platform. MyFord Touch doesn’t support third-party apps like music streaming services. It was panned by consumers and critcs for being slow and awkward to use, and even Ford chairman and namesake Bill Ford admitted the system was a dud when it first launched.

Ford has been fixing those problems over the last two years. But it seems that now the company is ready to throw in the towel, and you can’t really blame it given that it has the far better technology in AppLink to fall back on. Ford is also switching up vendors for Sync 3, replacing [company]Microsoft[/company] as the core OS provider with [company]BlackBerry[/company]’s QNX automotive platform.

According to Don Butler, Ford executive director of connected vehicles and services, Sync 3 will remain in MyFord’s upscale category, becoming standard in high-end Fords and Lincolns and an option in mid-range vehicles. While it will have the same voice command and app features as lower-end Sync AppLink vehicles, it will support a larger capacitive touchscreen, letting drivers use pinch and swipe gestures the way they do on tablets.

Butler added that Sync 3 will also sport simpler, more intuitive voice commands. Instead of commanding your car to “Play Artist: Beyonce,” you can just say “Play Beyonce” or name a song or album. The system should be smart enough to figure out what you mean.

Sync 3 will also introduce direct integration with Siri Eyes Free, which means you’ll be able to use the iPhone’s voice assistant features with one long push of the command button on the steering wheel and interact with Siri over the car’s user interface. That’s not the same thing as support for CarPlay, which will bring [company]Apple[/company] services and third-party iPhone apps into the dashboard. Butler said CarPlay and Android Auto integration are coming, but wouldn’t reveal a timeline.

Ford SYNC 3 Apps Screen

With AppLink, Sync 3 will be able to grok with your phone, accessing dozens of different apps from [company]Pandora[/company] and Spotify to Glympse and Scout. I’ve been a bit surprised that Ford hasn’t announced support for any new AppLink apps lately — and it’s doing very little to publicize the apps it does support — but maybe that will change with the overhaul of Sync.

Finally, there’s one more feature worth mentioning. Sync 3 will be able to connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network while your car is sitting in your garage. At first, Ford is using that for updates so when Sync 3.1 emerges you won’t have to upgrade your system at your dealer or with a USB drive. But Butler said Ford has bigger plans to use that wireless interface to connect your vehicle to the cloud and the connected home.

Ford moves away from car features to car “experiences”

While that focus has been mainly on industrial design throughout Ford’s century-long existence, Ford is now venturing into the world of digital design, shifting much of the design focus to the interior controls of the vehicle.