Internet in Cars: From the Desktop to the Dashboard

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BMW car
BMW's production convertible. Photo: Joshua Cassidy


Americans spend much of their time sitting in two places: behind the wheel of their cars and in front of their computer screens. So it makes sense that Detroit auto companies and Silicon Valley technology companies would eventually try to figure out how to combine these two key parts of American society. As Andrea Kissack reports, putting Internet access in cars may be the ultimate in mobile technology, but it comes with a host of opportunities as well as dangers.

A Smart Phone on Wheels

It’s a sunny day in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. I am taking a spin with Rob Passaro, the head of BMW’s app center in Mountain View. We’re driving a shiny red BMW convertible, it’s a test car--loaded with some of the car maker’s latest high-tech entertainment features.


“Here we are driving the streets of SF, and let’s say I really would like to hear some of my favorite music," says Passaro. "Luckily I’m a Mog subscriber.”

Hungry? BMW's iDrive system allows users to access popular features such as Yelp. Photo: Joshua Cassidy.

Passaro snaps his iPhone into a cradle between the front seats and uses a rotating knob down by his gear shift to control his infotainment choices, which are displayed on a screen in the dashboard. The car is now recognizing one of his phone’s music apps.

“ [It's] streaming through the iPhone and heard through my audio system in the car,” explains Passaro. An acoustic Fleetwood Mac song soon fills the cabin.

“I think the best way to think about it is the automotive screen is really like a fourth screen. You have TV, you have your laptop, you have mobile, you have automotive,” says Passaro.

While many drivers already use things like Bluetooth technology to sync their phones with their cars to make telephone calls, this is different. The smart phone connects to BMW’s iDrive system, an onboard computer with internet capability that allows drivers to access features like news, music, Yelp and email - all of which are already programmed into the car. Drivers also can access a number of third party apps through a plugged-in internet-enabled device.

As Passaro puts it, it’s a smart phone on wheels.

And what’s a smart phone, without access to social media? Like several car companies, BMW offers a feature, in its newer models, that displays as well as reads, Facebook and Twitter updates through a connected iPhone.

Next summer BMW will be integrating into its electronics system the velvet-toned voice of Apple’s Siri. Passaro says BMW has worked hard to establish relationships with big tech companies.

“We are finally playing in the same realm as the Apples and the Googles," he says. "We can play with them so we think a lot of good things can come out of that.”

Ford and Hackathons

Since BMW established a presence in Silicon Valley well over a decade ago, several other auto makers have made the move to tap into the area’s tech innovation. Julius Marchwiki is Global Product Manager for Sync App Link at Ford.

Ford's SYNC technology in the 2012 Ford Fiesta (image provided by Ford Motor Company).

“Being in Silicon Valley really brings app developers to your door,” Marchwiki says.

Ford opened a research office in Palo Alto earlier this year. Ford engineers already have held two “hackathons” – intense brainstorming sessions with Facebook app designers.

One of the first use cases Marchwiki says he saw with the group of hackathon members was the concept that since they are all in this younger age group, (we can use) planning events on Facebook.

"And we mention that we used to get into our cars. We knew we had some place to be, we didn’t know exactly where to go," he says. "So that was one of the first things we explored was - is there a way to start linking these great Facebook services into your navigation system?”

Driver Distraction

Ford is exploring ways to integrate Facebook into its voice controlled Sync system, Marchwicki says the company is trying to find the right social media apps that are both useful to drivers and safe. With the increasing number of in-car electronics you can guess that driver distraction is becoming a big concern.
Some of the new features are just too tempting, take for instance the dashboard display on Tesla’s new Model S. The Silicon Valley-based electric car maker is offering a screen nearly the size of two iPads, with a built in web browser that shows high definition videos, maps and web pages. Some sobering facts, though, the CDC says more than 1200 people are injured and 15 die each day in crashes in the U.S. due to distracted driving.

The 17-inch center panel screen on Tesla's Model S lets the driver control everything from navigation to basic web browsing (photo by Flickr user pkingDesign).

California is ahead of most states. It already has laws on the books that ban hand held texting as well as surfing the web from a display screen while driving.

"The government has to play a role to guard and watch what’s happening in this space," says Thilo Koslowski, a senior analyst with the technology research company Gartner. "Ultimately it’s the users fault, but the manufacturers have the responsibility to create these systems and educate consumers on when they can use them and what the risks are involved in this."

Thilo Koslowski has been looking at the convergence of technology and cars for fifteen years.

"There is a hype shaping up with the automotive industry," he says. "I see more and more of what is happening today does not need to be translated to the vehicle. They are just trying to copy and paste it into the vehicle, such as mobile services focused on social media."

Koslowski’s company has surveyed consumers and found that most are not so interested in keeping up with tweets while in the car. He says they want more road data through enhanced navigation and hands-free phone service.

"Similar to ten years ago, phones became smart phones. We are seeing the same transition now with automobiles where we are getting from basic transportation to intelligent mobility," Koslowski says.


Koslowski believes by 2016 most consumers will expect smart phone integration in cars and he says this is just the beginning of the connected drive. He expects that soon we will be using apps to connect to large amounts of data stored online that could include our cars' maintenance records, road conditions and traffic information generated from other cars.