Love it or hate it—and we know many of you hate it—the connected car isn’t going away. That much was evident at this year’s Connected Car Expo, held in Los Angeles last week just ahead of the LA Auto Show. But “connected car” means more than just one thing, and not all of it is frivolous or just meant to reduce the minor inconveniences in our lives.
Car companies are in a hurry to squeeze the Internet and large displays into new cars. The OEMs are faced with a challenge; unlike a couple of decades ago, there aren’t really any bad cars. Reliability and safety have made such strides that car makers are looking at digital bells and whistles as a way to differentiate their products from competitors, spurred on by focus groups demanding “the smartphone experience” while behind the wheel.
The technology being driven by the smartphone industry means that embedded processors and wireless modems are cheap and rugged enough to survive life in automotive applications. Consequently, engineers and programmers are constantly working on new ideas that leverage those processors and network connections to teach old cars new tricks. Done right, this could have big advantages for safety as well as personal convenience, but only if we—the general public—both know about it and can be convinced it’s safe. Some of it might even be appealing to you.
New cars aren’t the only ones to benefit from all the attention that the tech industry is showering on the automotive world. Previously we’ve looked at connected car devices from Automatic and Mojio that leverage a car’s OBDII port. OBDII is an industry standard that lets us interface with a vehicle’s Controller Area Network (CAN); signals can be read from different sensors in the car—engine speed, vehicle speed, diagnostic alerts—then combined with GPS and accelerometer data and sent to your phone or the cloud.
But OBDII has gained a lot of notoriety of late. The protocol was developed in the olden days, before anyone could conceive of connecting it (and therefore the car) to something called the cloud. Consequently, basic hacking safeguards that we might expect just don’t exist; the federal regulations for OBDII merely require the port to be within two feet of the steering wheel, which made sense when being networked meant a physical connection.
It was reassuring then to hear that Voyomotive takes security rather seriously, particularly after seeing what its new Voyo device can do. Voyo combines an OBD2 dongle (of its own design) and connected relays (that you’ll plug into the fuse box), using your phone to allow two-way communication to the company’s cloud servers. The device is able to get a lot more data from the OBD2 port thanks to Voyomotive reverse-engineering the way different car brands implement the protocol. But thanks to those relays, it’s also able to send commands to remotely lock or unlock the car, immobilize it, and cleverest of all, add start-stop functionality.
We got to test out that last one on a short test drive, and it works as advertised. Once enabled, a firmer than usual press on the brake at a stop saw the engine shut down, referring the instant we relaxed the pedal pressure. Voyomotive CTO Robert Vogt is keen to stress that, with hooks into the car this deep, security is paramount. Everything uses 256-bit encryption, and the keys are all preassigned at the time of manufacturing. “We have an independent security review being conducted by a major research lab… they’re going to have full access to how it’s implemented, other than the keys,” he told us.
Connected car technology is going to struggle with the challenge of driver distraction. Indeed, a common complaint in comment threads for articles like this one is that people should keep their eyes on the road and not on a screen. We met with Zendrive, a company that thinks smartphones can also be harnessed as a solution to this problem. It uses the accelerometers and GPS sensors in smartphones as data loggers, and its analytics are able to detect whether a car is exceeding the speed limit, constantly accelerating or braking too hard, and also how often the driver engages with their phone. What’s more, there’s no OBD2 connection to compromise.
Zendrive has created an SDK that can be incorporated into ride-sharing or fleet management smartphone apps, and its data can be (and has been) used by their customers to help make their fleets safer through driver reports. The company also uses aggregate-level data to study ridesharing services (both for kids and the rest of us). This kind of data effectively crowdsources traffic patterns and identifies accident blackspots in real-time, and Zendrive, Voyomotive, and others have APIs that municipal authorities can use for traffic management.
Eventually our cars and roads will all be equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems, but widespread deployment of V2V and V2I is at least two decades away. Harnessing the power of our phones to achieve similar goals in the meantime seems like a no-brainer.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin