Connected Cars

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Connected Cars

Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021051

Publication Date: 2206

Publication Type: TUTORIAL


At a time in human history when even toasters are
connected to the Internet, it is hardly surprising that one of the most
expensive pieces of technological equipment most people own, their car,
has also joined the Web. While the technology to connect cars to certain
telecom networks has been around since the mid-1990s, it is only within the
past decade that automakers have begun considering the full potential
of what a connected car could mean. This has included the
introduction of never-before-seen in-car entertainment, networked
diagnostics, mobile hotspots, and a level of communication between the
vehicle and its driver that increases both safety and enjoyment while
operating the vehicle. Still, many manufacturers have only scratched
the surface of what is possible, with some of the current leaders striving
to bring to market the most fully featured, heavily connected cars yet.
This report will examine the history of the connected car, what today’s
connected car systems are capable of, and where the systems of the future
might take us.

Report Contents:

Apple Company Profile
Company Profile
Self-Driving Vehicles


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The history of the modern connected car essentially began in 1996 with
the introduction of General Motors’ (GM’s) OnStar. This
now-familiar offering was launched as a voice-only service for luxury
vehicles that would provide a sort of in-car concierge for drivers.
Pressing the OnStar button would connect drivers or passengers with a live
human who could complete tasks such as making dinner reservations, looking
up directions, connecting a phone call, and more. While the system was
initially a glorified carphone with a dedicated operator on the other end,
it did provide an important first step that resulted in the first
autos with built-in cellular radios. 

It is these radios that make it possible for connected cars to operate
by providing a connection with a mobile carrier in the
vicinity as well as with the Web at large. The first OnStar vehicles – the
1997 Cadillac DeVille, Seville, and Eldorado – were limited to using the
cellular radios available at the time. In other words, aside from a standard
voice connection, very little else was possible. This quickly changed as cellular radios became more capable, and the earliest attempts
at creating a mobile Web began to emerge in the late 1990s. At this time, OnStar’s capabilities grew to include some of the features it
is now most
well known for as well as features that would define what a
connected car is capable of. 

Once built-in GPS and cellular connectivity were introduced to the
OnStar brand, two new, very important, channels of connectivity were
opened up. With GPS, OnStar could now provide the same turn-by-turn
directions that would have previously required a standalone GPS unit,
while also being able to provide the location of a stolen vehicle or the
location of a vehicle involved in an
accident. These last two abilities greatly increased both the financial
safety of the car and the physical safety of the occupants by
making it possible for emergency personnel to be dispatched immediately,
even if everyone in the vehicle is unconscious or incapacitated.

It should be noted that the features were not without cost. Like a cellphone accessing a mobile network, OnStar-equipped vehicles, as well as
any other connected car, must have access to a cellular network. In the
US, this has almost always meant a service plan with one of the major
wireless carriers. Both Verizon and AT&T have powered OnStar at
various points in its history in addition to serving as wireless
connectivity providers for several others systems that would emerge in
more recent years.

OnStar remains one of the most well-known connected car platforms, with
GM licensing the brand and technology for use in vehicles
from Acura, Isuzu, Subaru, and Volkswagen. The company also offered its
OnStar For My Vehicle (FMV) product for a time. This came in the form of
a replacement rear-view mirror which included the necessary hardware to
connect the user to GM’s OnStar services, while also providing Bluetooth
hands-free functionality. The product allowed OnStar to be integrated
into nearly any vehicle, regardless of make or model. However, OnStar
FMV was discontinued in 2014, with the company promising to explore
other options in the retail space. No additional stand-alone OnStar
products were offered.

Introduction of New Features

By early 2000s, OnStar was still one of very few
connected car platforms available. However, it and its competitors had
already begun innovating on what was possible with the relatively
rudimentary cellular modems and in-car computers available at the time.
Below is a list of new features brought to the connected car category in
rough chronological order:

  • Remote Diagnostics – This feature makes it possible for the
    car’s owner, his or her mechanic, and even the vehicle’s manufacturer
    to connect with the car’s onboard systems to diagnose issues. The
    system, on a basic level, works very similarly to the OBD II port
    found under most modern vehicle dashboards, providing coded messages
    that can be translated to descriptions of what has gone wrong
    with the car and where the problem is located within the engine or
    other systems. 
  • Remote Car Health Reports – Closely related to the previous
    entry, these reports make it possible for a vehicle to provide a
    report on its health before something has gone wrong. Common status
    updates include fluid levels, oil life, tire
    pressure, usage metrics, location data, and more. These reports can
    be provided to the driver or to the mechanic/dealership. In much the
    same way a thorough medical record can play a major role in keeping a human
    healthy, these reports offer similar benefits for connected
    cars. This makes the connected car one of the first members
    of the "Internet of Things (IoT)" family. The capabilities on
    display a decade ago are exactly of the type that IoT devices of today
  • Digital Connection – Around 2006, the Federal Communications
    Commission (FCC) announced that it would no longer require an analog
    cellular connection in the systems being used to
    power connected cars. This cleared the way for automakers,
    including GM, to switch their cellular radios to digital-only setups.1
    Unfortunately, this rendered many older OnStar-equipped vehicles
    obsolete. While some could be upgraded via an adapter device, many
    other models were rendered useless by the switch.2 On the
    positive side, the technological evolution did clear the
    way for data-only connections for the first time. This made it
    possible for users who did not wish to use the concierge-based
    services to still benefit from a digital data
    connection and the inherent speed boosts and connection stability
    associated with it. 
  • In-Car Entertainment – With the introduction of 3G data
    connectivity in the US, connected cars finally had a data connection
    fast enough to provide in-car entertainment services. These were, and
    still are, focused on streaming media offerings.
    While the driver obviously cannot watch streaming video while
    operating the vehicle, he or she can still enjoy streaming audio,
    including music, radio dramas, audio books, and more. Similarly, passengers,
    particularly children, could be kept occupied by streaming video being
    played on rear-seat monitors. Providers were quick to jump on
    this new venue for their offerings, with audio providers such
    as Pandora being among the first to license their technology to connected car makers for use in in-dash
    entertainment suites.3 Since the initial attempts, in-car
    entertainment has continued to expand to new audio and video content
    providers as well as to new categories, with some vehicles even
    offering video games to passengers.
  • Remote Start – This feature functions in much the same way as
    a remote start unit connected to a key fob, allowing the user
    to start their vehicle from a distance. However, thanks to its
    reliance on a cellular connection, that distance can be much greater.
    Automakers have advertised scenarios in which a user could land at
    home after a long plane ride only to find themselves going from
    tropical climes to chilly weather. In this case, the user could start
    the car located in long-term parking before they leave
    the terminal. This allows the vehicle plenty of time to warm up,
    increasing passenger comfort. Remote starting can even be tied into the car’s customization features, making it
    possible for electric seats, mirrors, and other controls to
    automatically adjust before the driver’s arrival. 
  • Advanced Theft Prevention and Recovery – This category
    includes a bevy of features all focused around preventing vehicle
    theft, or providing the best possible chance of recovering the vehicle
    in the event it is stolen. The first line of defense is a
    relatively simple one, with many connected cars refusing to start
    without the presence of either their remote key fob or an authorized
    user’s cell phone. Although this does not provide any
    significant advantage over the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)
    chip used in car keys for many years, it does give an extra layer
    of flexibility for vehicles with keyless ignitions. More unique to
    connected cars is what they can do to aid in their own recovery: being
    able to provide their current location to the owner or
    authorities by using their onboard GPS; remotely disabling the
    vehicle’s ability to start if it has been confirmed by the police as
    stolen; and even remotely imposing an artificial speed limit on
    vehicles currently in motion, allowing the thief or driver to be
    apprehended by police. This last feature was first introduced around
    2009 and was almost immediately responsible for the recovery of a
    stolen Chevrolet Tahoe, with the thief being arrested on the scene.4 
  • 4G/5G and Mobile Hotspots – Like 3G, 4G connectivity brought
    with it a whole slew of possibilities. The obvious benefits
    included faster data connections and improved video and audio
    streaming. However, the increased transfer rates also made it possible for
    connected cars to begin serving as access points for other connected
    devices. This essentially allows the cars to become mobile
    hotspots. Vehicles equipped with this feature provide passengers and
    those located nearby with a Wi-Fi signal in much the same way an
    in-home router or other mobile hotspot would. This Wi-Fi network is
    then connected to the Internet via a 4G connection being powered by a
    carrier’s network, such as AT&T or Verizon Wireless. Many
    vehicles of this type are capable of supporting multiple devices at
    once, meaning an entire family can stay connected while on the
    road. The quality and speed of the available connection will
    likely begin to increase once again in the coming years, as 5G network
    services are integrated into connected cars.
  • Mobile OS Integration – One of the limiting factors
    installing technology in new cars has always been the threat of obsolescence.
    While it is painful enough to have to purchase a new smartphone
    every two years in order to keep up with the times, doing the same
    with a $20,000+ car is simply out of reach of the vast majority of
    the population. For this reason, it has often been preferable to use
    an add-on system in the vehicle
    instead. These include satellite radios, GPS units, and after-market
    head units that provide much of the same functionality as a connected
    car but with the option of removing and replacing them at a later
    date. The easiest of these options, by far, is the
    use of one’s own smartphone for many of the same functions that would
    have required a connected car. A smartphone is capable of
    providing GPS-based directions, in-car audio and video streaming, and
    even a mobile hotspot. Because of this versatility, some automakers
    and tech manufacturers have decided that instead of competing with smartphones for user’s money, they
    should work together with smartphone
    makers to better integrate these already-available features into their
    systems. To this end, both of the dominant mobile operating systems
    of the day, Android and iOS, have introduced in-car variations. For Google, this meant forming the Open Automotive
    Alliance (OAA). The
    group was formed to bring together companies from multiple categories to
    advance the use of Android on a new platform: the connected car. The OAA includes Google
    and Nvidia, as well as a slate of automakers, such as Acura, Alfa Romeo,
    Bentley, Fiat, Ford, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jeep, Mazda, Nissan,
    Mitsubishi, Subaru, Volvo, and many, many others.5
    Not to be outdone, Apple followed Google’s 2014 introduction of Android
    Auto with its own CarPlay platform just two months later. The system
    relied even more heavily on already existing technology, with CarPlay-equipped vehicles using a Lightning connector and the user’s
    iPhone to provide access to nearly all of the functionality of Apple’s
    iOS via the car’s on-screen menus. The system has been compatible with the iPhone
    since the 5/5S/5C and later models. Both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay
    have seen multiple updates in the years since, and both continue to be
    integrated into new cars being produced today by several manufacturers
    around the world.

These developments are only the most important of those introduced to
the connected car product category over the past 20 years. Other,
smaller developments have taken place that have provided major influences
to the factors mentioned above, while the market as a whole has continued
to expand. Today, most cars, excluding the most bare-bones economy models,
include one or more of the aforementioned features. In fact, it is
becoming increasingly uncommon for cars to be completely disconnected.
Where drivers once wanted more horsepower or better gas mileage, many
have now shifted their priorities to having the latest technology or most
connectivity. Cars are increasingly becoming a part of the same
interconnected network of things and devices that power user’s everyday

Figure 1. A Connected Car

Figure 1. A Connected Car

Source: US Dept of Transportation, Intelligent Transportation Systems, Joint Program Office

Current View

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Since the very beginning of the connected car concept with the launch of OnStar,
the market has expanded exponentially – in terms of what connected cars are capable of as well as the number of
automakers producing connected cars. In fact, nearly every major vehicle
manufacturer in the world offers some level of connected car, with many
launching their own platforms to power these vehicles. OnStar now competes with
platforms like Ford’s Sync, BMW’s Connected NA, Hyundai’s Blue Link, and

The average car buyer is now more tech savvy than ever before, with that trend
expected to expand in the coming years. Because of this, it is
more important than ever for automakers to appeal to the techy in us all by
offering the newest and most cutting edge features in their latest models. Aside
from the developments above, one of the latest trends in connected cars is smartwatch compatibility. This allows owners of an Apple Watch or WearOS
watch (depending on the car model) to perform tasks such as unlocking or locking
their doors, remotely starting the vehicle, or checking where they parked – all
from their wrist. One of the current leaders of the connected car revolution,
Tesla, has even gone so far as to launch the ability to
"summon" a vehicle via smartwatch or smartphone. This function can
remotely start the car, open the owner’s garage door or exit a parking space, and have the car proceed
to a pre-determined location in the user’s driveway or out on the street. While
this is not full-fledged vehicle automation, it does hint at what will soon be
possible, and at what Tesla itself is attempting to accomplish with its
Autopilot feature.

Where then does this leave the connected car, if the driver may not even
have to actually drive in the near future? The answer is, seemingly, in a very
good place. Connectivity in a world of autonomous cars would become more
important than ever. Not only for the purposes of entertaining and supporting
the humans on board but also as a network through which connected cars could
communicate with each other. In fact, the next great horizon in connected
vehicles may actually be a complete networking of every car, truck, and bus on
the road into a new type of rolling Internet. 

Cooperative Connected Cars

Although connected car makers will continue to bring new means of
entertainment and connectivity to their vehicles for the pleasure and
convenience of the driver and passengers, the next frontier of the connected car
category will almost certainly be focused on aiding the car itself. This
revolution in connected cars relies heavily on autonomous vehicles, but it is
not entirely dependent upon them. To put it as simply as possible, in
the future our cars will talk to each other. This does not refer to some Pixar-like
scenario in which the vehicles have become full-fledged personas, but rather a
world in which each vehicle on the road is able to cooperate with all other compatible
vehicles on the road to enhance the safety and efficiency of the entire traffic

Imagine an average day on an average highway. Right now, people in this scene
are plagued by traffic jams, accidents, construction, human error, and other
factors that cause tie-ups, injuries, and even death. While many believe
that autonomous vehicles could alleviate many, if not all, of these issues by
handing the controls over to a much less error-prone computer, a half step in
that direction would be to allow the human to be a much more informed and
aware participant in the daily drive. This enhancement does not even need any
exotic or far flung technologies to work; it simply requires the networking of
technologies that are already in place.

Returning to the aforementioned average
highway scene, imagine that a vehicle’s collision detection system (which is already
standard on many models) detects debris in the road that has fallen off of
a passing truck. While that vehicle’s onboard systems can benefit the first
driver to encounter it, the next several drivers may or may not be similarly
warned by their own cars, with each instance occurring at the last minute. The
result will, almost inevitably, be a traffic delay if not an accident. Instead,
a networked connected car could detect the obstacle and send a warning to all
vehicles in the area that the debris was in the road. This warning would
proliferate down the highway, allowing cars that were still thousands of feet
away to provide their drivers with warning of
the impending danger. The result would be a scenario in which each driver could
make a calmer, more informed decision on how to avoid the obstacle, preventing
accidents, backups, and stress for the drivers on that road. Emergency
services could even be automatically informed of the issue, allowing them to
respond to it more quickly than they could today.

This type of cooperative networking between connected cars could also be
applied in the most mundane of driving tasks. For instance, a driver that has
engaged their right turn signal and is intending to merger into the right lane
must currently rely on the drivers in that lane to take visual notice of their
indication and react accordingly. Cooperative connected cars could take much
of the possibility for human error out of the equation by allowing the car
that is changing lanes to send a signal to vehicles that are in the target
lane. These cars could then warn their own drivers that another motorist wishes
to merge via audio or visual cues that are much harder to miss than a single
blinking light several hundred feet away. In fact, nearly every action taken
during a drive could be provided to nearby cars to enhance user safety.
Multi-car pile-ups could be avoided because dead stops would only affect those
closest to them, with those further back having been given ample warning of the
required slow down, giving time for them to come to a much more gradual halt. 

Again, this technology may just seem like a stepping stone
towards full vehicular automation, and they are. However, they have the power to
save thousands of lives in the meantime by leveraging existing sensors
and technologies to help other drivers on the road by forewarning and
forearming them to protect everyone. While the technological hurdles to
implementing these changes are obvious, their imminent introduction would go a
long way towards bringing humans to the autonomous roadways being hinted at
here. After all, vehicles like the Tesla Model S with its Autopilot mode or
Google’s self-driving car must currently react to other vehicles as if they were
uncontrollable, random factors that could pose a danger at any moment. Imagine,
instead, a scene in which those cars were actively collaborating with others on
the road to examine conditions, plan cooperative changes in traffic patterns,
and jointly protect all of their occupants. Vehicular automation is a promising
future, but it is one that will almost certainly require cars to be connected on
a level that has never before been seen or attempted. 


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While many of the benefits of connected cars have already been explored,
this section will drill down deeper into the specific positive impacts
provided by current connected car systems, as well as the more advanced
ones theorized about in the previous section.

  • Entertainment – This is usually the first and most
    obvious benefit most people think of when initially hearing about the
    concept of connected cars. Where drivers and passengers used to be
    limited to whatever was playing on the AM/FM radio at the time,
    occupants of connected cars now have at their fingertips
    almost any option that a person would in their own living room. This
    includes most major audio streaming services being built into many
    models of vehicles as well as some video streaming offerings. For
    those wishing to access a service that isn’t built in, mobile
    hotspot-equipped cars can connect a tablet or smartphone, allowing
    passengers to spend the miles and miles of a long road trip catching
    up on their favorite TV series. Some automakers, such as Tesla, have
    taken things a step further by integrating their own video gaming
    solutions into their vehicles. The most well-known of these, the Tesla
    Arcade, allows passengers, and the driver when the vehicle is parked, to
    enjoy mobile-style games on the vehicle’s huge touchscreen. Similar
    solutions have also been integrated into head-rest-mounted display in
    other cars and SUVs, allowing youngsters, and adults for that matter, in
    the back seat to enjoy gaming on the go.
  • Productivity – Although mobile hotspots can provide fun and
    enjoyment, they can also allow passengers to get work done. Not all
    employees may love the idea, but work carpools in a connected car
    could become a time for productivity, with everyone on board,
    excluding the driver of course, able to get connected via their
    laptops, smartphones, or tablets. This opens up the same level of
    productivity to in-car passengers that had previously been reserved
    for passengers on Wi-Fi equipped trains or planes. 
  • Preventive Maintenance – The ability of connected cars to
    inform their owners of their own health is a huge boon to reducing
    repair costs. An oil leak that might otherwise cause an entire
    engine to overheat and seize can instead be detected as soon as fluid
    levels begin to drop, with the owner being informed via email or text
    message. That same owner can then select a built-in option on some
    models of connected cars that allows the vehicle itself to schedule a
    maintenance appointment, automating nearly the entire process of
    vehicle care. 
  • Theft Deterrence – The ways in which a connected car can
    actively prevent theft or allow the owner to recover it have already
    been covered. However, like the best security systems, connected cars’
    most important tool in preventing theft is as a deterrent. Savvy car
    thieves, knowing that they are facing GPS tracking, remote locking,
    and more are likely to pass a highly connected car by in favor of an
    older model without the built-in security and recovery features. 


The fact is that cars are one of the most dangerous objects most people
own. They are involved in incidents on a daily basis that result in
injury and death. While these accidents are thankfully very much not the
norm, they are a reality that must be addressed and prevented whenever
possible. It is important, then, to examine the possible drawbacks
connected cars may have, particularly as they relate to passenger safety
and health.

  • Vulnerability to Hackers – This is the nightmare scenario for
    most connected car makers. The fact is that any technology that
    connects to a network automatically increases its vulnerability by
    allowing access to its onboard systems. A traditional, non-connected car
    may have onboard computers and sensors, but these are not accessible
    to non-occupants due to what is called an "air gap" or a
    lack of any electronic connection between those onboard systems and
    an external network. This air gap is destroyed the moment a
    connected car makes contact with an outside network. The possibilities
    here range from hackers using onboard systems to irritate a driver to
    a hacker literally being able to harm the occupants of a vehicle by
    taking control of it or cutting off its power supply in the middle of
    a busy highway. While no documented cases of hackers accomplishing
    such nefarious tasks have been discovered just yet, proof of concept
    demonstrations have, worryingly, proven that such scenarios are a very
    real possibility.6 Thankfully, like all of today’s
    networked technologies, vehicles can be patched to close nearly all of
    the security holes that present these types of dangers. That said,
    vehicle hacking will almost certainly follow the same path as the
    hacking of PCs or smartphones: malefactors will
    always be on the lookout for ways to circumvent security protocols for
    their own benefit for amusement. Just imagine the revenue a hacker
    could draw if they could successfully infect a connected car with ransomware, locking the vehicle from being operated until its owner
    pays them to render it usable again. 
  • Distraction – Although most connected car systems are
    specifically designed to prohibit the driver from using them in ways
    that would endanger their own lives or those of their passengers,
    humans will always find ways to get around safeguards. This is not really a flaw in the concept of
    connected cars, so much as it is a flaw in human nature. Nonetheless, since humans are the ones that will be operating these cars in
    the foreseeable future, it must be addressed. As previously stated,
    most cars prevent things like the driver watching video while they are
    in motion or texting via a visual interface while driving. However,
    not all distractions can be removed, and the broadening of
    communications and entertainment options provided by most connected
    car systems will inevitably increase the opportunities for drivers to
    distract themselves. 
  • Expense – Of course, adding these kinds of
    technologies to vehicles makes them more expensive. While there is
    currently an ample market for non-connected cars that do not bring with
    them these added costs, that market will almost certainly shrink in the
    future. The added revenue provided by selling connected car systems and
    the aforementioned possibility of cooperative connected cars will both
    be major factors in pushing connectivity on a larger and larger portion
    of new cars being sold. However, looking at this issue from another
    angle, the added cost of such systems may lead to the cooperative
    connected car scenario being delayed by years, as customers continue to
    rely on the smartphone already in their pocket for the same tasks.


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In many ways, cars
find themselves now in a very similar place to where cell phones
were when Steve Jobs got on stage to reveal the first iPhone.
Much of the population simply sees no emergent need for their car to be
more connected. Where early smartphone shoppers saw the promise in these new
devices, their less enthusiastic peers felt they already had multiple ways
to check their email, surf the Web, and do all the other things the smartphones
of the period could. Despite that early apprehension, the
vast majority of the first world population now prefers to use a
smartphone over a standard cell phone. So, do we absolutely need the added
conveniences provided by a connected car? No. But, with prices on connected
cars dropping as the technology becomes cheaper and more and more tech
savvy users reaching driving age, the cost/benefit analysis will certainly
continue to skew in favor of connected cars being a worthwhile

Even barring the desire to have the capabilities provided by a
connected car, they have something going for them that smartphones never
had over more conventional cell phones: they can save your life. From almost the inception of
the connected car and the launch of OnStar, safety features have been baked into most
connected car platforms. From calling emergency services in the event of a
crash to providing first responders with your vehicle’s location – even if
you’re unconscious – driver and passenger safety has always been a
cornerstone of connected car technology. This will only increase as
systems continue to integrate the slew of sensors now available in even
mid-range vehicle models, such as back-up cameras, lane warnings,
emergency auto-braking, automated parking systems, and more. While some
may be uncomfortable with the role of the driver being continually
diminished by connected cars (as well as their eventual evolution into the autonomous
car), others will be eternally grateful when a connected car saves the life
of a loved one or just makes the daily grind of a commute
a little bit safer and easier. 

Humans may complain about new technologies as a matter of course.
Skepticism is, after all, a health trait to espouse when presented with
something new that has the level of potential impact of connected car
proliferation. However, when the benefits become obvious, and the dangers
grow increasingly minimal, humans adapt to new technologies. Soon, people
may see the back seat of a car as one of the safest, best places to
enjoy their entertainment of choice, all thanks to their connected car.