2015 Autos: Highway to a More Connected Fleet

Automakers are developing a technology system that would allow cars to “talk” to each other.

November 26, 2014

In the months to come, work is set to begin on an ambitious test program covering 120 miles of highways around Detroit. The project is the first step in a goal to develop a national connected car network that would allow vehicles to “talk” to each other and a highway infrastructure, alerting one another to traffic or weather problems. Proponents are betting the system will save lives, reduce fuel consumption, and dramatically reduce traffic congestion on the nation’s highways.

“No other suite of technologies offers so much potential for good, and it’s time to turn potential into reality,” says General Motors CEO Mary Barra. GM plans to use its flagship Cadillac brand as its lead in bringing connected car technology to market. An updated version of the mid-range CTS sedan will feature V2I — or vehicle-to-infrastructure — capability, permitting it to receive instant alerts about traffic problems. The sedans will also use vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, systems to communicate directly with other vehicles.

If the project proves successful, don’t be surprised to see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration system mandate connected car technology within the next decade.

That said, today’s vehicles already are becoming increasingly connected. “We live in a connected world, and motorists want the same sort of features in their cars that they have in their homes and offices,” contends George Peterson, director of consulting firm AutoPacific Inc.

Audi, Chevrolet, and Chrysler are all adding new 4G LTE capabilities to their 2015 models that allow them to offer in-car hotspots. That makes it easy for the kids to sit in the back of the minivan watching YouTube or playing interactive games, rather than asking, “Are we there yet?” Passengers in a carpool can get plenty of work done by the time they reach the office.

The added bandwidth allows manufacturers to upgrade existing technologies like in-car navigation. Several makers now send out regular map updates, rather than requiring a motorist to purchase a costly DVD update.

Meanwhile, GM is developing a new “advance maintenance alert” system that would link the car to a cloud-based database compiling and analyzing maintenance and repair records from millions of vehicles all over the country. It would compare that information with data from your vehicle to determine when you need a tune-up or oil change and sound an alert if a more serious problem was developing, such as a faulty water pump.

There is a downside to having a connected car, say skeptics such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who worries that “cars are now able to track where we shop, where we eat, and where we go on family vacations — but drivers should be able to go about their daily lives without being tracked.”

Smart car proponents contend that what they’re looking for is information about driving conditions, such as the speed and density of traffic. But the fear is that there could be significant pressure to gather more information. Law enforcement authorities could simply query a vehicle to see if the driver was speeding or ran a red light, rather than having to catch them in the act.

In response, a group of 19 automakers have laid down new ground rules, saying the information they gather won’t be provided to government officials or law enforcement agencies without a court order, and it won’t be sold to insurance companies or other companies without certain permission.

Whether that assuages critics’ concerns remains to be seen, but like it or not, the era of the connected car seems upon us.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.