Imagining the ‘Connected’ Car of the Future

17:37 minutes

We may still be a few years away from being shuttled around by fully autonomous vehicles, but cars on the road right now already feature powerful processing equipment like video cameras and radar.

A connected car, via Shutterstock
A connected car, via Shutterstock

And at the Paris Motor Show, which opened on Oct. 1 and ends Sunday, Oct. 16, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW unveiled cars that use sensors to find open parking spots, read road signs and determine the best route to avoid traffic. Industry insiders say these aren’t one-off tricks by luxury automakers: The future of cars is connectivity.

We already buy “smart” refrigerators and “intelligent” thermostats. But Josh Siegel, a postdoctoral associate in mechanical engineering at MIT, points out that, as opposed to our networked appliances, cars move. And moving cars can generate a huge amount of data.

“If you look at cars, there’s an incredible amount of information there,” Siegel says. “You might be looking at 100, 200 or 300 sensors in a vehicle, and there’s this rich information generation — 25 gigabytes of data every hour. How do you know what to transmit?”

Auto manufacturers and app makers are betting that the data generated from our driving can enhance our experience behind the wheel. Siegel says that in the past, auto manufacturers pushed data from their vehicles’ telematics systems into private clouds for their own use. Now, platforms like HERE are gathering information across a number of vehicle types:

“Audi, Mercedes, BMW, they’re all sharing information from their sensors, from their infrastructure and putting it in one place,” he says.

That kind of data opens up new possibilities for apps and tools to aid drivers. Siegel gives the example of cars equipped with range-finding technologies like radar and LIDAR, which help with over-the-horizon awareness and adaptive cruise control.

“You can also use them to determine when a parking space might be open as you drive by,” Siegel says. “That Mercedes that just passed an open space might be able to tell the BMW that’s a mile away that that space is open, [so] the BMW can route to it automatically.”

But connectivity isn’t just coming to luxury brands. Automakers like Ford and Chevrolet already offer smartphone apps that let drivers lock the doors, start their engines and more. What about notifying us when a tire has gone flat in the office parking lot? Doug Newcomb, a car tech journalist and president of C3 Group, says the pieces needed for that kind of integration are already in place.

“[Your car’s] tire pressure monitoring system should be able to tell the app that, ‘Hey, at 2 in the afternoon or 10 in the morning, you have a flat,’ so you can call AAA or whomever,” Newcomb says. “So that’s an example of some of the benefits that this connectivity can have. And also an example of how all these pieces are in place, it’s just a matter of tying it together.”

But critics (and even some consumers) have raised concerns about the security of connective automobile technology. Last year, a team of “white hat” hackers, or computer security specialists, remotely disabled the brakes and transmission of a Wired reporter’s Jeep Cherokee, leading to a 1.4 million-vehicle recall and a popular YouTube video.

Siegel notes that as connectivity expands in the automotive industry, expectations for its security are growing.

“[Connectivity] wasn’t really planned when all these automotive architectures were put into place,” he says. “That said, hacking is a risk sort of local to the vehicle today. We haven’t seen any exploits demonstrated at scale, but it’s definitely an area of research. There’s a lot being done in terms of applying machine learning to intrusion detection.”

Ultimately, experts draw a direct line between connected cars and self-driving cars, with connective breakthroughs paving the way for technologies like autonomous navigation.

“If we think about a vehicle as a big series of sensors driving around, we can use that information to build the type of maps that vehicles need to navigate themselves,” Siegel says.

When the cars being planned today are released in 2020 (the auto industry has a four-year planning cycle), Newcomb thinks that they’ll incorporate more features that draw on our smartphones. For example, Newcomb envisions our smartphones moonlighting as safety devices since they’re the wireless tools that drivers and pedestrians have in common.

“You know, not all cars are connected, but most people are,” Newcomb says. “They have a smartphone in the car. How can we connect smartphones — for example, a smartphone in the car — and talk to the smartphone in someone’s pocket as they’re walking across the street so they don’t get hit? So we’re starting to see that, as well.”

— Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Josh Siegel

Josh Siegel is a postdoctoral associate in the department of  Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Doug Newcomb

Doug Newcomb is president and co-founder of C3 Group. He’s a car tech writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There’s a lot of talk about self-driving cars these days. You’ve got Tesla, Google, other car companies are betting big on the future, and perhaps one day you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride as a robot takes on the traffic and the road rage. While fully autonomous cars are a few years off, our cars right now are packed with processing power. Vehicles are equipped with radar and lidar and video cameras.

And this week at the Paris Motor Show, Audi, Mercedes, and BMW unveiled cars that can read road signs and determine the best route to avoid traffic. And they can even do one of the most dreaded driving tasks, finding a parking spot. Yeah. No more circling the block for you. Well, how can we tap into the tech to connect to other cars and the environment around us? What new driving features could all this stuff open up and what might the Paris Motor Show look like in, let’s say 2026?

My next guests are here to take us down that road, Josh Siegel is a post-doctoral associate in mechanical engineering at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Doug Newcomb is the President of the C3 Group. He’s also a car technology journalist based out of Portland, Oregon. Welcome to of you.

JOSH SIEGEL: Thank you for having me.

DOUG NEWCOMB: Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: I want to ask our listeners what they would like to see in a connected car of the future. Do you want to know– do you want more smart features in your car? What kinds of features would you like? Give us a call 844-724-8255. You can also Tweet us @scifri. Josh, we have smart homes right now. Your fridge is all on. It can tell you when you’re out of milk. What’s the difference between connecting your home and connecting your car?

JOSH SIEGEL: Well, there are a couple of key differences between connecting your home and connecting your vehicle. The biggest difference in my mind is that when you connect your home to the internet, you’re choosing what data to put out there. You willingly buy a smart refrigerator. You willingly buy an intelligent thermostat or a connected door lock.

If you look at cars, there’s an incredible amount of information there. You might be looking at 100 200, or 300 sensors in a vehicle. And there’s this rich information generation, 25 gigabytes of data every hour. How do you know what to transmit? How do you know what you can do with that? Then there’s also the issue of if your vehicle moves. Your house doesn’t. So it poses challenges in terms of ensuring that your vehicle is able to remain connected, is able to share that data reliably.

And then the security risks as well. It’s one thing to leave your front door unlocked. But it’s another thing entirely if you are able to wrest control of a vehicle that can go 100 miles per hour and weighs three tons. So you have these technical challenges, and you have these challenges in understanding what to do with the data. But you also have massive opportunity to improve people’s lives, reducing commute time, improving fuel efficiency, improving safety and so on.

IRA FLATOW: We’re seeing that already this week at the Paris Motor Show, right? They unveiled something called the hear system. It connects cars together so they can talk to each other. How does it do that?

JOSH SIEGEL: So hear is a really interesting platform. And if you look at how telematics systems, basically systems connecting cars to the cloud have worked previously, every manufacturer had their own system. They had their own silo, where they got data from their vehicles and put it into their private cloud for their applications. The thing that makes hear different is that it collects information from multiple different makes and models of vehicles. So Audi, Mercedes, BMW, they’re all sharing information from their sensors, from infrastructure and putting it in one place.

And this is one of the big challenges that we’ve seen with connected vehicles. For a lot of applications to work reliably they need data density, and by allowing multiple manufacturers to share information in one place they can grow this information more rapidly. An example would be, you mentioned radar and lidar. So for people who aren’t familiar with these technologies, they’re range finding technologies. And many cars on the road use them as part of over the horizon awareness or safety systems for adaptive cruise control.

But you can also use this to determine when a parking space might be open as you drive by. And that Mercedes that just passed an open space might be able to tell the BMW that a mile away that that space is open, and the BMW can route to it automatically.

IRA FLATOW: Or 10 BMWs can–


IRA FLATOW: Or 10 and fight over it when they get there. Doug, there are other systems and companies that are tackling the parking problem head on, how are they doing it differently from the hear people?

DOUG NEWCOMB: Well one of the companies it’s doing it is called INRIX. People know them as a traffic data company. But like Josh said, it really depends on having many of these cars out on the road, kind of hitting a critical mass. But what INRIX is doing with parking is– and a lot of these things are in place. It’s just a matter of tying them together. For example, INRIX is working with parking providers for off street parking.

So you’re driving your Audi or now they just introduced it to Mercedes-Benz, you can call it up on the in-dash entertainment system screen and say, OK, I’m going to park at the airport. These are the number of spaces available at this particular lot. It even shows how much it’s going to cost you. We haven’t gotten to the point where you can actually pay for the parking, but that’s coming really soon.

And also INRIX, as Josh was talking about with Mercedes, INRIX is doing this with BMW, where they’re actually finding on street parking and they’re using data analytics to figure that out. Another company, Bosch, showed something last year at the Consumer Electronics Show where, as cars are going by, they use their cameras and sensors to spot open spots on the street. So just to kind of give you an idea of how this technology and how this data is starting to come together. Like you said, to just make it much easier to drive, which is, part of driving is finding a parking spot.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a big part. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Marty in Caldwell, Ohio. Hi. Marty. Marty,

MARTY: Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Must be on a cell phone. can hardly hear you. We have to drop him. He’s gone. He was asking about– I saw his question was, he wanted to get the chauffeur driven car that comes when you whistle sort of. Are we getting close to getting the car that will come when you need it by itself?

DOUG NEWCOMB: Yeah, in fact Ford, just a couple of weeks ago announced that they were going to have a self-driving, ride sharing vehicle available by 2021. So just in five years. And now Uber’s actually doing that in Pittsburgh. They’re testing autonomous taxis or Ubers, so yeah. I don’t know about when you whistle. I’m sure there’s going to be some kind of app for that. But basically, I think where it’s going, and I think you’ll see this a lot in urban areas, where you’ll have autonomous taxis that provide the service. And I think that’s where we’re going to see it first.

JOSH SIEGEL: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Jump in.

JOSH SIEGEL: Yeah. I just wanted to mention that this is a really good point, because it brings up the shift in, at least the American market, from personal vehicle ownership to shared mobility. And that’s where we see a lot of these things headed right now. So it may not be your car that you call or that you whistle to, but it may just be a car that comes to you. And connectivity is really key to enabling autonomous technologies and vehicles. Because one of the things that these vehicles do is they gather data wherever they go. So if we think about a vehicle as a big series of sensors driving around, we can use that information to build the type of maps that vehicles need to navigate themselves.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well you know I use I use Waze all the time to find out what the road conditions are like. I imagine that kind of crowdsourcing is the kind of thing–

JOSH SIEGEL: Exactly. That’s a good example.

IRA FLATOW: Doug, I know that automakers are looking at face recognition software. What would they do with face recognition software?

DOUG NEWCOMB: Well a couple of different things. I’ve seen Volvo for example, where they use face recognition in vehicles basically to make sure that the driver is not being distracted. As I think one of the issues we’re going to see as we move to autonomy, is the handoff as it’s called, between the driver and the car. And there is going to be certain instances where the driver needs to take over.

So if you have cameras in the car that’s watching the driver’s eyes and can tell and we have this technology now. Lexus had it. So if you’re driving and you’re looking away from the road for a certain amount of time, this infrared camera sees that and gives you a warning. And we’re seeing it with other manufacturers as well. I mentioned Volvo. And it’s getting more sophisticated as well.

Another company, Continental, I saw they showed an example where we’re now getting so many different alarms and things like that in the car, people get what they call alarm fatigue. So they came up with this system that kind of filters basically when people are looking away from there, when they’re really looking away from the road and it gives you a very strong indication of, hey, you better turn your attention back to the road.

IRA FLATOW: Being a car geek, I don’t have enough dashboard information. I remember back in the day when you had oil pressure and temperature and all that kind of stuff, which is all gone. Is there a way to wirelessly get let that show up on my smartphone or something, sitting on the dashboard? So I can see all that cool stuff that we’re used to?

JOSH SIEGEL: Yeah. So that’s actually coming back into vogue I suppose, if you look at things like On Star’s application right now. There are also aftermarket telematics systems. So some prominent ones in the field would be Automatic or Vinli. And these plug into your diagnostic port. They connect to something called OBD 2 or Onboard Diagnostics. And they’ll let you see everything that’s going on under the hood or under the floorboards you know, because you can get analytics for your transmission and a number of other vehicle components as well.

IRA FLATOW: I want a graphical display like my old dials. Let’s go to Don in Oakland, California. Hi, Don. Welcome to Science Friday.

DON: Hello. Glad to be on.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Go ahead.

DON: I was asking about rush hour, and if there is a way a car could look and see what that best, fastest lane would be in the next mile or two.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah, you’re in California. So you need to know that stuff.

DON: OK. I’m always in the wrong lane.

DOUG NEWCOMB: Me too. Me too. I think that’s one of the– we were talking about the hear technology earlier. It’s not only the card that’s going to be connected, but all the parts of the car, the brakes, the windshield wipers, all these different things. So if they don’t have that application yet, but I’m sure it’s coming where if a mile up the road, let’s just say that there’s an accident or someone stalls or whatever, you will know. You will get an instant, the cars ahead of you will tell you that so you can start to move over so you’re not caught in that bottleneck.

IRA FLATOW: Or what toll booth lane to get into as you’re getting closer.

DON: There you go.

IRA FLATOW: You know I’ve heard that lots of infrastructure is becoming smart to connect your phones and cars. There are smart billboards now. Do we have more smart infrastructure, Doug, coming online?

DOUG NEWCOMB: Yeah we do. In fact that’s a big push. Last year the US department transportation did a Smart City Challenge competition, $50 million grant they gave away. I know a lot of the cities were looking at making not only the cars connected, but the infrastructure connected. So I mean, how many times have we sat in a traffic light when there’s no one there, the cars at the traffic light can talk to one another.

And then also to avoid accidents, if there’s a car running a red light, then you can get a notice. But the billboards, I wrote about that in Europe. That’s a little bit, it’s kind of like Joshua was saying, that’s a little bit creepy. It basically will identify your car, let’s just say I pull up to the stoplight with this camera with a billboard. They see I’m driving a BMW. And they say, oh, would you like to know about the latest BMW?

It doesn’t grab information, personal information, but you know, it grabs enough information to say, hey, here’s a guy in a BMW, he might want to buy the next one. So that’s a little bit where it’s still a little unclear.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking about the car of the future with Josh Siegel and Doug Newcomb. I almost called you Don Newcomb. Shows you my age. You know, talk about creepy, there’s so much dashboard space. I can see that as a billboard spot somday in the future. Let’s go to Charlotte, North Carolina. Let’s go to Masoud. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

MASOUD: Thank you for taking my call, sir.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

MASOUD: Yes. I had a question about the safety of having all these electronics on onboard, because once we move to internet of things, we are going to have all the data that’s being transferred, and they’re definitely hackable. And would they cause any kind of safety hazard for the people who are on the road or like for example, if someone could hack it and manage it, what kind of problem that we might get into?

IRA FLATOW: Good question. You know, today I heard some news about people worrying about the internet of things of their homes, there thermostats and things like that being the entry point for hackers. Is this what we should worry about too with the cars, hacking, hacking, cars, people taking over your car? Josh, Doug?

JOSH SIEGEL: So I think that we need to worry about it in terms of designing better systems in the future. If you look at how cars have been designed historically, there was very little attention paid to ensuring that these systems are secure and robust. Connectivity sort of is an emergent technology. It wasn’t really planned when all these automotive architectures were put into place. So that said, hacking is a risk sort of local to the vehicle today.

We haven’t seen any exploits demonstrated at scale. But it’s definitely an area of research and there’s a lot being done in terms of applying machine learning to intrusion detection and that sort of thing. And it’s something that we’ll need to continue to look at in the future. I believe last week, the Department of Transportation posted some guidelines about how to secure vehicles and how to test these vehicles. So we’re getting there slowly, but I don’t think that we’re there yet.

IRA FLATOW: What about features you want to see, Doug, in the car of the future? One of things that I– we all have tire pressure monitoring systems in our tires. Should we find some way of never getting a flat instead of just monitoring them? I know we have run flat tires now.

DOUG NEWCOMB: Right, right. Well, that’s a good example of how all the pieces are in place. And this is something I would like to see, I we’ve all probably had the instance where you walk out of your office at 5:00 or what have you and you have a flat tire. Well, there’s no reason that the tire pressure monitoring system, like Josh mentioned, a lot of automakers now have a remote app. You can lock the doors. You can start the engine. That tire pressure monitoring system should be able to tell the app that, hey, at 2:00 in the afternoon or 10:00 in the morning, you have a flat so you can call AAA or whomever.

So that’s an example of some of the benefits that this connectivity can have, and also an example of how all these pieces are in place. It’s just a matter of tying it together.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, so it signals that your car is out of air in the parking lot. You know, I’ve run out of time but there’s so much more I want to talk about. I’m imagining that your cell phone, your smartphone is going to be an integral part of your car in the future, right? Unlocking the door, things like that.

DOUG NEWCOMB: It is. In fact, what’s going to happen, what Josh was mentioning about, the security aspect, the same thing is happening in many ways with automotive, because you got to remember, automotive, their product life cycles or planning cycles are four years. So whatever vehicle they’re planning now, won’t be out until 2020. So they have to be able to anticipate this. And I think what’s going to happen is, we’re going to see more smartphone connectivity.

We have these platforms called Apple Car Play and Android Auto, you plug in your phone, you basically get the user interface from those devices in a safe way in the dashboard. And they’re also talking, to give you an idea, not all cars are connected. Most people are. They have a smartphone in the car. How can we connect smartphones, for example, a smartphone in the car to talk to a smartphone in someone’s pocket as they’re walking across the street, pedestrian, so they don’t get hit. So we’re starting to do that as well.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting point. Josh Siegel, of MIT and Don, Doug Newcomb of C3 Group. Thank you for taking time to be with us. We’re going to take a break. We’ll be right back with David Macaulay right after this.

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