4G Data Service in Cars Offers Amazing Potential, Familiar Challenges

Audi plans to introduce 4G to the 2015 A3. Other carmakers are sure to follow. This will provide better vehicle diagnostics and analytics (along with better Wi-Fi for passengers), and though there are obstacles, they will sound familiar to anyone who works in IT.

By John Brandon
Wed, January 22, 2014

CIO — At the recent L.A. Auto Show, Audi announced a new feature in automotive technology. It's not as eye-catching as the rear spoiler on a Mercedes SLS AMG, but the 2015 Audi A3 will provide 4G service running at 100Mbps directly into the car.

Yes, passengers will be able to tap in with iPads over a hotspot. More importantly, cars services such as 3D navigation will run much faster — especially when it comes to rendering maps along your route.

4G in Cars

For those familiar with information technology, the first question is this: How will infrastructure change? Having a car connect at that speed opens up a world of possibilities — video chats between drivers, real-time prediction engines that monitor where you drive and suggest alternatives, or even HD video streaming to the rear entertainment system. But there are a few problems — namely, the connection between cars doesn't exist yet, the prediction engines are in beta and HD can hog bandwidth.

CIO.com asked industry insiders, automakers and analysts to find out how 4G data service in cars will work this year (and beyond). Once the infrastructure matures, there are some amazing possibilities — and a few new obstacles that only IT experts can resolve.

Benefits of 4G in the Car: Better Diagnostics, Analytics, Audio

Before tackling the IT challenges, it's important to understand how drivers will benefit from the faster service. Ashley Twist, an innovation strategist at the marketing agency Engauge, has studied the trends in connected vehicles. One of the most interesting benefits, she says, is providing more information to the driver about vehicle diagnostics.

When cars are more connected, automakers can feed drivers relevant data such as brake pad level, the day they should change the air filter or the minor problem that needs attention before it escalates. (Today, services such as OnStar already alert drivers to low tire pressure.) The implication is that this diagnostic information can also be shared, as an opt-in measure, with your insurance company and mechanic. The car could tell the insurance company that a window is broken, submit the claim, order the repair and bill the provider before a driver even leaves for work, Twist says.

[ Commentary: How (and Why) Your Car is Spying on You ]

Rusty Lhamon, the director of machine-to-machine technology at T-Mobile U.S.A., says the 4G-connected car will provide a greater bandwidth for devices such as smartwatches, tablets and smartphones. Audio technology will improve, with better fidelity than today's cars, while video chat features could allow a technician to call in after a crash or roadside issue and troubleshoot with a driver face-to-face while examining the car's internal systems. Finally, real-time traffic information will also improve, Lhamon says, mostly by addressing the latency issues that exist today.

Matt Dirks, a senior client partner at Acquity Group (part of Accenture Group), says the 4G-enabled car could usher in an age of more data-driven analytics. Insurance companies will better tap into opt-in data for "good driver" discounts without relying on aftermarket add-ons, he says, while car dealers could provide a "smart reception" service that works like a virtual concierge for new customers.

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