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Connected Cars: The Future of Driving

By: Bridget Clerkin February 29, 2016
As connected cars become more common, you can start to expect more features like these to come standard in vehicles.

It seems that every new technological breakthrough in this Information Age is aiming to grow the already boundless realm of knowledge and create even more opportunities to bring people and ideas together in that infinite space.

That same expansion of possibilities and breeding ground for connections can be applied to everything our modern technology touches, including not only humans, but the machines we use, too.

Automakers around the world are increasingly turning our regular vehicles into connected cars—“intelligent” pieces of machinery that utilize a battery of information to help guide, or occasionally even override, our driving decisions.

Once a vague field and an even less defined term, connected cars have been progressively refined, and we can now move from speculating about what they may do for us to, in many cases, enjoying the benefits they can actually offer.

Making the Connection

While some of the finer details have yet to be filled in, most of the technology and supporting structures needed to allow our cars to connect has already been developed.

Primarily, the vehicles will utilize a system called “dedicated short range communications,” or DSRC, which works in a similar way to WiFi. The airborne signals allow the vehicles to “communicate” with each other by sending specific information across the waves, such as speed and GPS location.

But it won’t just be the cars, trucks, and buses chatting to each other on the road. New technology being developed will allow the vehicles to use the same DSRC system to speak to roadside infrastructure, such as traffic signals, toll booths, and even designated school and work zones.

All that digital chatter will add up to create an invisible, accurate, and ever-changing portrait of the roads for the vehicles, which can then, in turn, relate the information to their human occupants by offering advice on the driving experience.

As of now, there are several major areas of that experience where such technology is being targeted to help fill in gaps in human knowledge, or sometimes even action, including safety, mobility, and environmental protection.

But that other form of connection that people have increasingly craved and prioritized—that of the apps and capabilities of their mobile devices—has also found its place in connected cars, showing up mostly as a group of offerings known collectively as “infotainment.”

Warning Signs

There are a slew of dangerous factors on the road that our cars may now be able to spot more easily than us. After all, machines never get tired, and it’s much more difficult for a computer to become distracted than it is for a human.

That’s why a large number of connected vehicle technology has focused on correcting our driving patterns by sending us warnings on the road. The cautions can be as simple as letting you know you’re drifting out of your lane to as complex as “learning” an individual’s driving pattern or monitoring his or her face to figure out—and send warning—when that driver exhibits signs of sleepiness.

But connected cars can warn us about more than what’s going on within the car. New technologies will let us know when we’re approaching an area where we’ll have to change our speed and style of driving, like a construction or school zone or even a slow-moving snag of traffic.

With the unseemly—and seemingly growing—number of deaths happening on the road today, it’s no wonder why safety features and warnings are a driving force behind so much connected car technology.

Upping the Intimacy

Humans spend, on average, a ton of time in their vehicles. It would follow that, if cars were able to think, all that time spent together would lead to a close relationship with their drivers.

With connected car capabilities bringing vehicles closer than ever to doing just that, that type of familiarity and personalized experience with their human companions has become the goal behind a number of new initiatives.

Innovations in voice recognition technology will let a connected car respond directly to its driver, hands-free. Aside from more traditional driving-related requests, this technology will increasingly cross over into life-related assistance—from ordering dinner to updating a social media account while behind the wheel.

The growing ability for a vehicle to pick up on its driver’s preferences will also allow it to personalize the travel experience for them, offering musical suggestions and even defaulting to more commonly used driving modes or routes on GPS.

Some connected car manufacturers are examining how to take this relationship one step further, and allow a car to access what’s going on inside the body of its driver. Some developers have imagined wearable monitors that will connect a car to your vital signs, allowing the vehicle to stop driving and even call for help if a problem is detected.

Are You Not Entertained?

Another huge focus on connected technology is “infotainment”—that blurry line that connects the places where entertainment and information collide.

The demand for such technology has been so high for so long that infotainment applications were among the first in the connected car revolution to be added to our vehicles, as anyone who has ridden in the back of a New York City taxi in the past 10 years can attest.

But while in-vehicle entertainment systems have long lived in our headrests, as our phones and other devices adapt to be more inclusive and personal than ever, as do our infotainment opportunities.

Connected vehicles will soon give a driver even greater access to any app on their phone, thanks to Bluetooth technology. While in the past, that type of connection offered little more than Pandora access, new cars are letting drivers use the car’s interface to talk, text, and update social media.

Some new apps will even let a car do the updating for you, by utilizing other information it already has access to. For example, one program will let your car post a tweet exclaiming something like, “Heading to Los Angeles, with the top down. It’s 78 degrees and life is great!”

While our insatiable thirst for social connections make infotainment a clear focus for many manufacturers, however, its progress may be slower than many customers would prefer. Some car manufacturers have expressed concerns over letting so many third-party developers into their world and elevating the security risk for their drivers.

Keeping Things Moving

Once they’re given the ability to “talk” to one another, connected cars likely will have a lot to say. All of that communication should lead to information that will make rides much smoother for drivers, from having advanced warning of changing speed limits and traffic patterns to knowing which “alternative routes” other drivers have taken—and how successful they’ve been.

But even more technology is on the way that will bring that same efficiency to the ride from beginning to end, including alerting drivers to where parking lots—or even parking spaces—are available.

If that parking space happens to be tight, a connected car could help its driver navigate the tricky and often anxiety-inducing parallel parking job. And if that ride ends at a port for public transportation, a connected car could help keep its driver updated on bus, train, or plane departure times.

Seeing Green

Efficiency will be doubly effective when it comes to the environmental impact of connected cars.

Aside from the making each ride as quick and accurate as possible, connected cars could contribute to the green movement by monitoring—and actively controlling—emissions and heating and air conditioning usage.

Manufacturers are also hoping that a connected car’s ability to help drivers avoid traffic would cut down on unnecessary idling and the information they offer on more easily navigating public transportation would make those options ultimately more attractive to more travelers.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, the transportation sector is responsible for 27% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, so even small adjustments to that number could be a big victory for the planet.

Future Connections

Connected vehicles are becoming more pervasive on the road, but despite their growing presence, it remains unclear how they will actually effect the average driving experience.

While many of the innovations may offer improvements, others may contribute to the increasing—and increasingly serious—problem of distracted driving.

Meanwhile, if the connected car’s more sophisticated sibling, the autonomous vehicle, is able to benefit from a recent endorsement by the National Highway Safety Traffic Association, we may soon no longer need some of the innovations being worked on today.

While we may not be able to see too far down the road of connected cars, but we know the way we’ll get there has been forever changed

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