Connected Cars Show Great Promise, but Safety, Security Worries Persist

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2013-10-28
Connected Car

Connected Cars Show Great Promise, but Safety, Security Worries Persist

Volvo, betting on connected car technologies, announced Oct. 6 that it has a vision: By 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo.Two months earlier, Nissan set a similar goal, announcing plans to have a commercially viable vehicle with Autonomous Drive technology available by 2020. Furthermore, within two product generations of introducing the technology, it plans to extend it to its full product line.

"What we've done is fleshed out that the two key pillars of Nissan Motor Company are zero emissions and zero fatalities. Autonomous driving is really about that goal of zero fatalities," Andy Palmer, Nissan's executive vice president, told the press in August, making the 2020 announcement.

We humans, as we know, are a fallible lot, prone to distraction, poor judgment and regrettable decisions, often while manipulating 3 tons of steel on wheels at high speeds. There are 6 million car crashes in the United States each year (it's the number-one cause of death for people between the ages of 4 and 34) and human error is said to be to blame in 90 to 93 percent of cases. Slippery roads, by contrast, are blamed for 6 percent of crashes.

Helping drivers, then—if not completely eliminating their participation, in some instances—is thought to be an excellent way to keep more alive and safe, and it has become a key focus of the nascent but fast growing connected car market.

"If the car can be more intelligent than we are sometimes, the car could help us to be a better driver," said Catharina Elmsater-Svard, Sweden's Minister for Infrastructure, in a Volvo promotional video launched with the Oct. 6 announcement.

BMW, Ford, Toyota and Audi have also all shown off cars with autonomous systems—cars that require a driver to be behind the wheel, for back up and as an extra set of eyes, but that when told where to go can accelerate, steer, turn, brake, park and even be alert to surprises like a deer jumping into the road, or a jaywalker.

How the cars work varies somewhat, but they generally all rely on very detailed maps and either laser scanners or radar to create a constant, real-time blueprint of everything around the car. In all scenarios, it's very easy for the driver to take over, whether by putting his or her hands on the wheel or hitting a red button.

Google began looking into driverless cars several years ago, while downplaying its efforts to the public (not to mention its less-indulgent shareholders) as something of a hobby, or a lark. Its self-driving cars—part of its "moonshot factory"—have since driven more than half a million miles across a variety of terrains and road conditions and without a single accident. (One of its cars, though, was rear-ended at a stoplight by an actual driver. Here's another driving statistic: 10 percent of fatalities at intersections are caused by red-light violations.)

In September, the California State Legislature, with not a little nudging from Google, made its state the third to legalize driverless cars. Several more states are considering putting pro-driverless-car legislation on the books (it's not actually illegal anywhere, so much as not explicitly legal). Michigan is expected to join the list by year's end.

"I expect that self-driving cars are going to be far safer than human-driven cars," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the press Sept. 24, as California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the new law. "Self-driving cars do not run red lights."

Google, which is not only developing the software but reportedly planning to build its own cars, has also said that driverless cars are safer since they never get tired or distracted or drunk.

Additionally, since the cars are supposedly less likely to crash, there's an opportunity for them to be lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient. Also, because machines are more precise and reliable drivers than humans, driverless cars could safely drive closer together, in slightly narrower lanes, increasing highway capacity "by a factor of 2 or 3 ... doing away with all traffic jams on highways," Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, has said.

Even when a freeway is operating at maximum capacity, according to Google, only 10 percent of its surface is being used.

Connected Cars Show Great Promise, but Safety, Security Worries Persist

Still other benefits are that the cars could encourage more ridesharing (and thus decrease pollution), and create new opportunities for people with limited mobility.

Currently, 10 percent of vehicles include built-in connectivity. Parks Associates has forecast that by 2017, 47 percent of new vehicles will include embedded cellular modules by 2017. In a June report, Telefonica Digital cited Machina Research, which expects that by 2020, that figure will rise to 90 percent.

The connected car, futurist Ian Pearson said in the report, will have an "almost unimaginable transformational impact on our driving experience."

Connected Cars: The Opportunities

Driverless cars, while something of an end goal, are also an extreme on the spectrum of opportunity the connected car market represents.

Jonathan Horvath, director of Enterprise Product Management at Smith Micro, a company he describes, in a nutshell, as "experts in mobility," ticks through a list of industries that stand to benefit (tremendously) from the connected car market.

The automakers are an obvious start.

"The average lifecycle of an app is two or three months. The average lifecycle of a phone is 12 to 24 months. But the average lifecycle of a car is five to 10 years," said Horvath.  Automakers are trying to figure out how to "refresh a car, offer an updated experience," he said, adding that over-the-air updates, made possible through high-speed Long Term Evolution (LTE) connections, are an answer.

Automakers are also looking forward to the cost benefits the latter will bring. Maintaining the computers in cars is a high-ranking expense: Service centers include costs for rent, upkeep, equipment, staff salaries and benefits. Plus, when a driver brings a car in for one thing, a dealer will typically suggest five other things that can be repaired under the warranty.

"As a consumer, you love it. And the dealership likes it [because it strengthens the relationship].  But the home office doesn't love it, because they're paying," said Horvath. A car that's connected can be updated and refreshed at a time that's convenient to the driver, and in a way that provides the carmaker with considerable savings.

Companies in navigation, infotainment, streaming movies, games, voice activation, the LTE network providers, companies working on hotspot 2.0 technologies and even the LED manufacturers, will all have major roles in the connected car business, Horvath continued.

"It's only a matter of time before those flexible, bendable screens are in cars—your windshield could be an LED screen," said Horvath. "Instead of having a physical rear-view mirror, you could have a section of windshield with a zero-blind-spot rear-view perspective built in."

And in the back seat, maybe the rear windows could be screens on which your kids could watch movies, he adds. "There are tons of opportunities for all kinds of people."

Horvath said he's seen demos in which a driver gets out at the office door and the car goes off into a parking structure and parks itself. Someone also showed him a car that, sensing aggravating, stop-and-go traffic, can offer to take over.

"He told me, 'My wife can tell when I drove home in traffic, versus when I let the car drive home for me.'"

Applications for the Rolling, Mobile Device

In January, General Motors made publically available a software development kit (SDK) with an application programming interface (API) that developers can use to build add-ons for the infotainment systems in its vehicles. (Historically, only select designers have had access to the API.)

GM encouraged developers to create "relevant, customizable and seamlessly integrated automotive apps," and has made a point of the scarcity in the current car-app market: While a new smartphone app is likely to be overlooked in overly crowded app stores, car apps have plenty of space to be noticed (particularly by a captive audience, given the average 90 minutes that drivers spend in their cars each day).

Connected Cars Show Great Promise, but Safety, Security Worries Persist

In February, GM followed up with the announcement that its 2015 Chevrolets, Buicks, GMCs and Cadillacs—vehicles reaching the U.S. and Canadian markets in mid-2014—will be equipped with 4G LTE connectivity from AT&T.

GM called the vehicles "rolling, mobile devices" with their own built-in WiFi hotspots.

While the apps seem a fun add-on, offering entertainment to backseat passengers or a way for drivers to improve their fuel economy, they also offer carmakers an opportunity they take very seriously.

"Your phone isn't like anyone else's and your phone becomes more and more yours over time. We like that model," Greg Ross, GM's director of Product Strategy and Infotainment, Global Connected Consumer, told eWEEK. "For the car business, that creates more flexibility. ... We can offer you something that feels brand-new, even though you have a car that's 2 years old."

A user's applications and preferences could live in the cloud and transfer when a driver buys a new car.

"By being better connected, we have an opportunity to stay in dialogue with [customers], which increases the likelihood that they buy their next car or truck from us," said Ross. "That's the name of the game."

No One Wants Another Data Subscription

One of the last, and possibly trickiest, mobility issues that still need to be addressed is pricing. While car makers and tech companies have been keen to show off their connected technologies over the years, the issue of pricing—how much and who pays—is where conversations come to a screeching halt.

In April, T-Mobile and Audi gave it a tentative try, offering in-car WiFi for $15 a month with a 30-month contract. GM, before its LTE-equipped rollout in mid-2014, will soon have to also attach a price tag to the data.

But GM stands to benefit from its more than a decade of experience with OnStar, the assistance service that has been most drivers' first experience with in-car connectivity.

"One thing we learned from OnStar is that people benefit from trying things out before they're asked to buy," said Ross. "We also realize we need to put the data in context of what you're buying it for. With OnStar, you pay for OnStar service, which happens to include data. Data is a component of the service, not something we ask people to pay for directly."

Another idea is to allow people to buy a connectivity pass. Maybe they're going on a camping trip for the weekend, and want a connection, or they're driving somewhere with a bunch of kids in the back seat. The use case, said Ross, "should be presented overtly, as part of the value of the car."

While most car makers are "just beginning to feel their way toward a pricing strategy, "GM has the benefit of its experiences with its 6 million OnStar customers," said Ross.  "We think it's a big opportunity to differentiate ourselves."

Additional Challenges

When asked about other challenges in this new market, Chris Penrose, senior vice president of AT&T's Emerging Devices organization, pointed to the differences between the industries that are now linking up. The electronics industry seems to advance every quarter. "How do we take that speed of innovation to vehicles, which typically take two to three years' worth of planning?"

Another area that will need to change, he says, is data storage and memory.

"If you want to store your music in your car today, you can't. If you want to download a video to have in the car, for your kids to watch, you can't," Penrose said. The challenge will be to update and innovate the vehicle's design, while offering services that drivers can take advantage of.

Still, such challenges, he suggests, are more like hiccups, compared with the opportunities.

"We think the market is going to explode," said Penrose.

"And this is not just a domestic play for us. We're talking with partners around the world. There's truly an opportunity here to bring forth new services that haven't been thought of yet."

Connected Cars Show Great Promise, but Safety, Security Worries Persist

"We're creating innovation partnerships with foundries and labs, to figure out how can we take all of this connectivity and use it in a really meaningful way for our customers?" he continued. "Every day, I hear new ideas. ... We think this is a massive opportunity, for AT&T and for society as a whole."

Securing the Connected Car

"As with so many things," said Steven Durbin, vice president of the Information Security Forum (ISF), "there's so much potential—and then the security piece creates a roadblock."

This summer, Twitter engineer Charlie Miller and security consultant Chris Valasek—who last year received a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to investigate the security vulnerabilities of connected cars—went on a press tour to show how, using a laptop or even a video game controller, they could take over a car's brakes, gas pedal, steering and even its horn.

"If I'm an attacker and I break into, say, your radio, I can send messages [to the car's computer] and say, 'Hey, I'm the brakes, and I'm telling the engine to do this,'" Miller explained during a July interview on National Public Radio.

Miller and Valasek shared their findings with Ford and Toyota, whose cars they'd hacked into, and both carmakers said they were "taking the research seriously," NPR reported.

This is another example of why connected car technology is a two-edged sword when the security implications are considered.

If all that's been promised is enabled, said the ISF's Durbin, "I could be on the road on the way to the airport, I can be told on the way that there's traffic, the car can alert the airport to sell my ticket and book me on another flight. Which is amazing."

But should bad guys gain control of the same systems, "they could divert me—tell the car there's a roadblock and take me off course," said Durbin. "There's this challenge of how you make the car secure, or at least very difficult for the bad guys to take advantage of these things."

Durbin also brought up the instances, this summer, of people breaking into cars using what seemed to be key fobs. ("Breaking in without breaking in," said Durbin.)

At the Black Hat hacker conference in 2011, researchers had similarly shown how they'd figured out how to remotely unlock and start the engine of a Subaru Outback.

"I could care less if I could unlock a car door," Don Bailey, one of the researchers, told USA Today. "But the same system is used to control phone, power and traffic systems. I think that's the real threat."

The ISF, which does research around topics of interest for its Fortune 500 member companies, began looking into the connected car issue years ago and has advised members about the potential for security-related threats around shipments being transported by road, or of abductions of high-value targets.

There's also the potential for someone to hack in and create chaos, as a diversionary tactic while something else is going on, Durbin said.

Somewhat more benign, he also offered the example of the little black boxes that young drivers in England often opt to have in their cars, as a way of proving their safe driving practices to insurance companies, in exchange for lowered fees.

"That sort of information in the wrong hands, however, is a real issue," said Durbin, adding that encryption is a must.

Another nagging issue is that fact that connected cars must constantly communicate with one another and with points along the road in order to operate as an efficient whole. A driver's whereabouts could be known at every moment (which, with GPS enabled on a smartphone, they could be anyway).

It bears remembering, Durbin noted, that we're still in the early stages of understanding all the implications of this issue.

"For automakers, safety components are their first port of call. Then, secondly, we'll see them move into security components. I always think it takes someone breaking in before people really take notice of the security issue," said Durbin. "You just hope that people aren't going to go too far."

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