Ford's newest concept car, which it’s introducing this week at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany, will be more than a driving machine: it will be a cloud-computing device as well.
The Evos is one of the first from a major manufacturer that will store data on and retrieve it from the Internet. So-called "cloud computing" capabilities are already employed by Flickr, Facebook and Google to store photos, messages and documents on the Internet. But lately the trend has been spreading to less data-driven business -- and car companies are not to be excluded.
An Internet-connected vehicle could provide benefits to its driver by accessing the Web to scan weather and traffic reports in real-time in order to suggest routes, warn of accidents ahead or even alter the suspension and handling to fit the road conditions. A rainy, wet road might require more responsive steering, for example.
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Such a car could also keep drivers safe. “We’re working with some German engineers,” said Mark Schirmer, Ford’s global product communications manager. “The car could monitor a driver’s heartbeat and see if he is stressed, and whether it’s a heart attack.” The car could then call for help. Then there are more mundane tasks like accessing an iTunes music library or Pandora Radio account.
While some of these functions can be done by a self-contained computer under the dashboard, building an Internet car can reduce the cost of design, says Jim Buczkowski, the company's director of electrical and electronics systems research and innovation. The company can rely on industry standards, such as those for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, already present for Internet-enabled devices instead of spending money on research and development for specialized systems that are manufacturer-specific.
That also allows for driving-centered smart phone apps that interact with the car. “The signs continue to say that your phone is going to be the center of your connectivity,” Buczkowski said.
And as more cars come online, they’ll be able to speak to each other, even if they aren’t from the same manufacturer.
More cars online will no doubt lead to more data that application developers might be able to use, said Robin Chase, founder of car-sharing company, Zipcar and also Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer car-sharing service in Europe.
For example, the efficiency of many hybrid cars depends on what kind of driver you are -- do you do long trips, short ones, or in-between? How fast do you go? Without that data it's a lot harder to decide which one to buy.
"Right now all my data is stuck in my car," Chase says. "When you upload it to the cloud, you can manipulate it in all sorts of interesting ways."
Just as Amazon was able to use data from millions of people buying books to track purchasing habits, automotive data might tell traffic planners how people actually drive – altering how roads get built and where. Chase thinks that many of the applications for Google’s data weren’t even conceived of before Google started gathering it.
As much as a cloud-connected vehicle would add a host of features, it also comes with some risk. First is hacking. “You don’t want some script kiddie fooling around you're your accelerometers,” said Andre Platzer, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.
Then there is safety. Applications have to take into consideration the fact that a human is operating a ton of metal and fiberglass at a high speed. Any adjustments an app makes to a car’s suspension or handling needs to happen behind the scenes, so that a driver doesn’t counteract them in an unsafe manner.
And of course, there’s the issue of reliability. Platzer notes that many times when users run into computer crashes or odd behavior from their electronic devices it’s because the various applications (or apps on a smart phone) behave differently when used together. A system crash in an automobile's computer could be a real annoyance or even dangerous.
There’s also the risk that drivers will adopt too many apps that ultimately don’t help them drive. So-called "Bloatware" is a persistent problem in the software and mobile phone worlds (think of how few features of Microsoft Word you actually use).
"I remember seeing someplace that people have an average of 22 apps on their phones and only use maybe five of them," said Buczkowski.
As cars become literally Internet-enabled mobile devices, manufacturers like Ford will have their hands full. But the world seems ready for a cloud car. Are you?