Wireless tech making its way to cars

Two technology companies active in Ottawa are at the forefront of creating what they’re calling the Internet car of the future, where movies, games and music can be downloaded onto touch-screen TVs and sensors allow real-time monitoring of road conditions that can be passed on to trailing vehicles.

QNX Software Systems Co. and Alcatel-Lucent are among 26 companies, including HP and Samsung Electronics, that have pitched in to create the vehicle under an organization they call NG Connect.

Their version of it was on display in Ottawa this week, a 2010 Toyota Prius jammed with technological goodies. While the car is technology-heavy, the only components a passenger can see are four touch screens, two in the front dash and one mounted to the back of each headrest.

The NG Connect team started work on the LTE-connected car in February. Work on the vehicle was primarily conducted at Alcatel-Lucent’s labs in Ottawa.

The touchscreens act as an interface into the operating system of the vehicle, which was created in Ottawa by QNX.

The tabs on the screens give access to movies, video games, e-mail and Internet. A service appointment can be booked through a predetermined car dealership while the car is on the road.

“You could have Netflix movies delivered right to your car,” said Steve West, director of emerging technology and media for the carrier business group at Alcatel-Lucent, adding that the technology could allow a different video, game or GPS information to be streamed to each of the four screens in the car. “What the driver needs is totally different than what the people in the back seat need, and that is different than what the person in the passenger seat needs.”

A driver could have GPS information displayed on the screen in the centre console, while a passenger could have information about nearby attractions. The two screens in the backseat might be displaying the latest movie releases, he said.

The downfall of the new technology is that it requires cellular technology that isn’t available commercially yet.

Called LTE (long-term evolution), or 4G wireless technology, the cellular services would increase transmission speeds to 100 megabits per second, up to 10 times faster than what is offered on the quickest wireless networks available in Canada today.

With the recent rollout of high-speed downlink packet access cellular networks by Canada’s major cellular providers, another upgrade to LTE technology, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, is likely years away.

Still, West believes that devices, such as those in the connected car, need to be created before the networks are rolled out. Alcatel-Lucent sells equipment to help telephone companies upgrade to LTE networks.

“Does that happen today? No. But the first wave is to get the car connected,” he said.

What has yet to be determined is how people will pay for this type of entertainment. Cellphone companies charge a premium for data-heavy devices such as the iPhone. With the new LTE-connected car, customers would have to pay to be connected through an LTE cellular connection and then pay again to watch or listen to the content.

Still, West believes that entertainment packages could be offered that make the costs of owning and operating the services affordable for everyday consumers.

Another possible use for the LTE-connected car is to monitor road and traffic conditions through on-board sensors. West used the example of black ice on a busy highway. If an LTE-equipped car passed over a patch of black ice and slipped, it could send a warning over the Internet to other LTE-equipped cars warning them of the dangerous patch.

Similarly, warnings of a traffic jam could be automatically sent out, alerting others to steer clear of the area, or LTE-equipped cars that had run over bumpy potholes could automatically send a report to the city telling them where the broken road can be found.

Toyota is a member of NG Connect and is pushing for the development of next-generation automobile technologies.

Alcatel-Lucent’s West would not say how much the new LTE features would add to the price of a car, stressing that this is simply a prototype unit to display the features that will be available once LTE is commercially rolled out.

Photograph by: Julie Oliver