Cars are getting smarter, but technological progress in the auto industry moves at a pace closer to the horse and buggy days than the development cycles of Silicon Valley. It can often take as long as five years before an automaker integrates new technology into a vehicle and, considering that many people keep their cars for a decade or more, the technology in our cars is often in its midteens by the time we put it out to pasture.
There are bright spots. Tesla, whose electric cars are still too expensive for most consumers, is doing more than just replacing gasoline with rechargeable batteries. It's allowing users to upgrade some of their car's features with software updates and it equips its Model S sedan with a 17-inch touch-screen that integrates access to media, navigation, communications, cabin controls and vehicle data.
The major automakers have all invested in technology and have a growing understanding that cars are more than just wheels and drive trains; they also are information systems that can both receive, collect and send data to benefit the driver and the car company.
There are ties between Silicon Valley and the automotive world. Nissan and Renault recently opened a joint research facility in Sunnyvale, which, among other things, will work on "autonomous vehicles" (self-driving cars). Ford opened a valley facility in 2012, and BMW also has a presence in the area as well.
It's also telling that several car companies participated at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas in January. Ford and GM were reaching out to software developers to create apps for their infotainment systems. Ford used CES to introduce an API (application programming interface) for its vehicles.
At the recent MobileBeat conference in San Francisco, IBM and Sprint jointly announced that they are working together to integrate IBM's MobileFirst solutions and Sprint's Velocity connected car platform to create an integrated hardware/software/connectivity platform to facilitate apps for cars.
The companies announced the Sprint Velocity Service Bus, a communications architecture that connects smartphones, tablets and other devices to vehicles through the cloud. At a press dinner, Sprint's Velocity development director, Bob Johnson, showed how a smartphone could be used to adjust a car's cabin temperature, seat position and other settings via Sprint's cellular network. You can even use a phone, PC or tablet to find a location and have that automatically programmed into the car's navigation system.
What impressed me about the demo was the very fast response time. The data went from the phone to the cloud and to the car in just a few seconds, though for the purpose of this demonstration at a dinner event, Johnson used a tablet to simulate the car.
Sprint's Velocity platform already offers in-car connections, including music and weather reports plus security, navigation, engine diagnostics, emergency services and remote connections for mobile devices.
Sprint, which is the No. 3 U.S. carrier when it comes to cellular handsets, is a leader in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. There are millions of cellular connections between devices, ranging from soda machines that phone home when they need to be refilled to embedded geolocation devices that help companies keep track of assets.
In a news release, Sprint and IBM quoted a report conducted by research firm SBD that predicts the global connected car market to be worth nearly $53 billion in 2018, up from $17 billion in 2012.
One of my questions about this partnership is: Who will pay for the cellular connection? The last thing most of us want is yet another monthly bill. Johnson said the companies are exploring multiple business models, including monthly service charges, front loading the service charges into the cost of the equipment and even offering free, perhaps advertiser-supported, services. That caused one of my fellow journalists to wonder if we'll someday have to sit through a 30 second commercial before starting our cars.
On a more serious note, I worry about the privacy and safety implications of all this in-car technology. Car companies claim they work very hard to create a safe environment for the driver, but I'm yet to be convinced that enough work is being done to avoid driver distractions. And, when all cars are connected to the Internet -- probably sometime in the next decade -- I worry whether our whereabouts and our driving habits will be tracked and recorded by the car companies, insurance companies and, of course, government agencies.
If you hate the idea of red-light cameras, wait till you get your first speeding ticket via email because your car's computer ratted you out the moment you exceed the speed limit.
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.