Connected car: Cloud computing drives off

If you’re wondering why tech-savvy people seem to be talking about weather patterns a lot, rest assured the clouds they’re talking about are digital.

Generally speaking, cloud computing uses an Internet connection to allow users to access Web-based music, information and a host of other services, without the need to keep that data stored on a user’s device.

If you listen to Internet music streaming services such as Pandora or do your correspondence on Gmail, you’re using cloud computing.

Now, thanks to the growth of mobile Internet access through smartphones, tablets and other devices, Americans can access the cloud from almost anywhere, including their cars.

“At the end of the day, the user does not want to have to give up part of their digital lifestyle when they get in the car,” says Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst for IHS Automotive.

That desire is reflected in the popularity of cloud-enabled infotainment systems, also known as telematics, in cars, he says.

“There’s a lot of connected-car growth right now,” Boyadjis says. “The vehicle is actually the third-fastest growing connected device behind smartphones and tablets.”

How the cloud comes to your car

At this point, most cloud-based services come courtesy of a car’s connection to a smartphone such as Apple’s iPhone or the Motorola Droid. That’s because those devices provide the wireless data connections needed to bring information from the remote servers where it originates and into your auto, says Joachim Taiber, a research professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clemson University’s International Center of Automotive Research.

“The idea is to connect the smartphone with the user interface of the car … to make the interaction safer,” Taiber says.

With that data stream, today’s leading telematics systems from automakers such as Ford and BMW can provide a number of different functions to car passengers. Find out how you can use the cloud.

Music: The ability to connect to streaming radio services such as Pandora is increasingly becoming a standard feature of automakers’ premium telematics systems, Boyadjis says. He eventually sees users being able to access their cloud-based music libraries through services such as iCloud, Apple’s cloud-based media and data-syncing service.

Information: Passengers can access a wide variety of real-time information from in-car telematics, including sports, news and weather, Boyadjis says.

Some telematics systems also offer information on local restaurants, movie theaters and other amenities, he says, and quick access to search engines that can put even more information at drivers’ fingertips.

Navigation: Old navigation systems had relied on an internal hard drive or DVDs to store maps and other navigation information. The problem was the information from those media gradually became outdated, Taiber says.

Now, thanks to growing integration between Google Maps and a number of automakers’ telematics packages, drivers receive up-to-date geographical data and can plan their routes online and send them to their car’s navigation systems. Some navigation services can even display traffic information, allowing you to avoid congested routes, Taiber says.

Social media: As social media joins email and texting as a key communications tool for tech-savvy drivers, more automakers are attempting to integrate social media functionality into their telematic systems.

BMW cars come with the ability to read Twitter and Facebook updates out loud, using its ConnectedDrive system, and General Motors and Mercedes have plans to offer the technology in future models, Taiber says.

Ford’s SYNC system also can read Twitter timelines through the company’s AppLink technology.

Email and text messages: While voice-to-text hasn’t progressed to the point that it allows full hands-free texting functionality, automakers have been offering a way to keep up with email and text since 2008.

“We’ve actually had the ability to do voice-based text messaging, where you’d receive a message, it would read it out to you, and you could reply in one of 15 different preset replies,” Boyadjis says. “Not too far down the road, you’ll have the ability to do complete voice dictation in the car.”

Two big challenges face automakers looking to bring the cloud into your car interior. One is the fractured nature of the smartphone market, in which several different platforms, including Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone, are vying for market share. Because accessing the cloud usually requires connecting to a smartphone, the variety of platforms can make it tough for automakers to develop features that will work with all of those competing networks, Boyadjis says.

The second challenge has been figuring out how to implement cloud features safely.

“Enabling connections into the car and services in a safe manner has been priority — No. 1 in most cases,” Boyadjis says.

Still, there has been push-back from auto safety advocates. Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended putting in place a national ban on making cellphone calls or using any other portable electronic device while driving. If adopted by lawmakers, the NTSB proposal could force automakers to make major changes to their telematics systems.

Short of that, the sky’s the limit for cloud-based computing functionality in U.S. vehicles, thanks to advances in voice-recognition technology and the penetration of smartphones in the marketplace, Boyadjis says.

“The volume brands — the Toyota Camrys, the Ford Explorers, the Honda Civics of the world — are really starting to attach to this connected-vehicle experience,” he says. “The end story is that information and access to things you’re using anyway, like Pandora and Facebook, are very important to users, and the automakers want to make sure they can provide that in the car so people can have that experience when they’re stuck in two hours of (Los Angeles) traffic.”

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