Technology

hf-saltz1

“Connected” Car Technology

Futuristic features that are powering the latest vehicles

By Marc Saltzman

If you think blind-spot sensors and rear cameras are the epitome of in-vehicle technology, just wait until you climb behind the wheel of many 2016/17 models. This year’s cars are packed with high-tech features that promise to make your commute both safer and more entertaining, with hands-free access to information, navigation and communication. In other words, the “connected car” is here.

And if the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is any indication, we’re just scratching the surface of where technology in the sector is going. Expect much more down the road (pun intended), as evidenced by the host of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles that pulled into Las Vegas to give the most curious of passengers a spin.

hf-saltz2Let’s go for a ride and check out what’s currently on board.

Next-gen infotainment systems
BMW showed off its sleek i8 Spyder concept car at this year’s CES, featuring a 21-inch display that occupies much of the passenger side of the dashboard. Even more impressive, perhaps, is support for BMW’s AirTouch, a new gesture-based control system that lets the driver choose items on the screen by simply pointing, waving and pushing a hand towards the content. Tom Cruise in Minority Report, eat your heart out.

Building upon BMW’s new 7 Series gesture-control system, the upcoming AirTouch includes access to an auto mode that tells the vehicle to handle highway driving all on its own. The steering wheel changes colour, moves forward to give you more room and then reclines the seat slightly to make the driver more comfortable.

Mercedes-Benz also showed off its digital dashboard for the new 2017 E-Class model. The dashboard houses two 12.3-inch LCD panels: one for the instrument cluster, and the other dedicated to infotainment and navigation. In an industry first, touch-sensitive control buttons on the steering wheel that respond to horizontal and vertical swiping movements, just like a smartphone screen, allow the driver to control the infotainment system without having to take his or her hands off the steering wheel.

Available now, however, are Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android hf-saltz3Auto, both of which make the car’s dashboard look and feel more like your smartphone screen. While carmakers still offer their own infotainment systems, many are allowing drivers to use what they are already most comfortable with: their smartphones.

With CarPlay, you simply plug in your iPhone and put it away as it’s charging up. Now your vehicle’s dashboard will resemble your familiar iOS homescreen, showing you many supported first-party apps—such as Phone, Messages, Maps and Music—and a growing selection of third-party apps, as well. For example, you can play music from Spotify or TuneIn Radio. Press the push-to-talk button on the steering wheel to activate Siri, the personal assistant that resides on your phone, and ask questions or give commands such as “Read me my texts,” “What’s the weather like tonight?” or “Play Drake.” When not driving, you can use the large app icons on the dashboard screen.

hf-saltz5Similarly, Google’s Android Auto first has you connect your Android smartphone—such as a Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, Sony and so on—and then press a button on the steering wheel when you want something. This activates Google Now, and you can then ask a question or give an instruction. You will have access to all of your contacts, messages, music, maps and other info while keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

4G LTE hotspots
Many new vehicles now offer support for 4G LTE connectivity. In other words, your car is now a password-protected Wi-Fi “hotspot” that allows up to seven devices to join for internet access. And this isn’t just a feature of the pricey premium vehicles. In fact, all new Chevrolet models ship with this feature—even the entry-level Chevy Spark, which starts at less than $10,000.

Drivers can get hands-free access to music, podcasts and audiobooks from their favourite app. Your significant other in the passenger seat can browse the web on his or her device and pick up email. And perhaps most importantly, the kids can stream Netflix on their tablets or play an online game of Minecraft in the backseat to prevent the dreaded “Are we there yet?”

Vehicles with integrated Wi-Fi offer a much better signal than your smartphone, largely due to a powerful antenna on the roof. Plus, you don’t need to use the precious data provided by your contract and it won’t drain your smartphone’s battery as much.

With Chevy models, data packages start at a reasonable $10/month, plus there are no roaming charges if you want to pack the family up for a road trip through the U.S. You can also get a daily data package if you’re just taking a day trip up to the cottage.

This 4G LTE hotspot feature also works up to 50 feet outside of the vehicle, in case you want to beef up your tailgate party, cottage getaway or “glamping” adventure.

Semi-autonomous carshf-saltz4
Given the fact human error accounts for more than 90 per cent of road accidents, perhaps we ought to rely more on our vehicles to help keep us safe?

That’s the idea behind “semi-autonomous” cars. As the name suggests, the vehicle assists the driver rather than taking complete control (“autonomous,” or self-driving, vehicles are coming in a few years, too).

Adaptive cruise control is an example of semi-autonomous technology, where the vehicle—embedded with cameras, radar, sonar and infrared sensors—slows down if it’s getting too close to another vehicle (or even pedestrians at slow speeds, in some vehicles). It can apply the gas for you too, when needed, to help maintain a gap between you and the vehicle in front.

The latest software update for the Tesla Model S means the vehicle can automatically steer down the highway, change lanes and adjust its speed in response to traffic. And once you’ve arrived at your destination, the Model S will scan for a parking space and parallel park on your command.

Apps and connectivity
Finally, because many vehicles are now “on the grid,” so to speak, many carmakers are supporting apps on a smartphone, tablet or smartwatch to give you remote access to your vehicle.

For example, with GM’s RemoteLink, you can remotely lock or unlock your car, start it up, or start and stop the horn and lights. In other words this app is an extension of your key fob, but one that works at much greater distances via cellular connectivity.

Actually, this app can do much more, too. It can send a destination address from your phone to your vehicle before you climb behind the wheel and start the navigation. It allows you to enable or disable the 4G LTE hotspot, change its name and password, and see the status of your plan, such as how many megabytes of data you have left. It can even tell you the fuel level in your vehicle, the remaining range, oil life and tire pressure.

On the flipside, in-car apps can also communicate with smart homes. At CES, Ford showed how its SYNC system can let drivers and passengers access internet-enabled devices using Amazon Echo and Wink, including lights, thermostats, home security systems and televisions. What’s more, SYNC can be easily programmed to communicate with smart home devices at a specific distance, such as opening the garage door and turning on the porch light when you’re a block away from home.

hf_bella_MARCThere are more than 15 million SYNC-equipped vehicles on the roads today and 43 million expected by 2020, says Ford.

Marc Saltzman is a recognized expert in computers, consumer electronics, video gaming and internet trends. You can see him on CNN, CTV’s Canada AM, and on Cineplex movie-theatre screens across Canada. Follow him on Twitter @marc_saltzman.