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Car Technology that Can Update Itself

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author photo by Autotrader February 2011

The availability of advanced in-car technology is increasing at a mindboggling pace. Some technologies that were once reserved for high-end vehicles–such as radar cruise control and automated parallel parking systems–are now available for reasonable prices even in small cars like the 2012 Ford Focus. And with the advent of internet-connected vehicles that run apps like your iPhone does, the pace of change is bound to get even more frantic. In many cases, your car is now the most advanced piece of equipment you own.

For an industry that is used to three to four year concept-to-production timeframes, that pace of change brings new challenges: The cutting edge technologies automakers incorporate at the beginning of the process could be obsolete by the time the car is released for sale to the public. To get around these issues, auto companies are increasingly turning to software developers such as Cisco, as well as developing their own in-house solutions, to allow cars to be upgraded easily after they leave the dealer lot.

As the first car company to embrace this concept, Ford has been pushing the envelope in terms of ways that drivers can customize their cars. In combination with their established SYNC system, Ford’s AppLink software–initially implemented on the 2011 Fiesta–can connect smartphones to the computer system of a car and allow drivers to do such things as stream internet radio to the car’s speakers or update their Twitter profiles on the go. Ford envisions these applications as a small start and has opened up AppLink to software developers much like Apple did with the iPhone.

“The growth in smartphone mobile apps has been explosive, and Ford has worked hard to respond at the speed of the consumer electronics market,” said Doug VanDagens, director of Ford’s Connected Services Organization. “SYNC is the only connectivity system available that can extend that functionality into the car. AppLink will allow drivers to control some of the most popular apps through SYNC’s voice commands and steering wheel buttons, helping drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.”

The embracing of upgradeable cars doesn’t stop with infotainment apps either. In a recent article in the New York Times, Cisco’s chief futurist, Dan Evans, said, “The car is becoming the most sophisticated piece of computer equipment you own,” envisioning a day when the car is part of a larger network of connected devices. In addition to the networked car, Cisco has been working on ways to make the instrument cluster on vehicles more customizable–replacing traditional gauges with computer screens that a driver can make to appear any way he wants with whatever combination of virtual dials, gauges and third-party applications he wants.

But with these new features comes the threat of hacking, computer viruses and random glitches that could affect the safety of a vehicle. It’s a serious question that, to this point, doesn’t have many satisfying answers. In fact, it’s the main reason why most other automakers have been reticent to jump into the new world of connected cars. Yet, while questions remain, the industry is plunging on. “We’re very pleased by the rapid development time and positive feedback we’ve seen from our first partners,” said VanDagens. “We want to encourage all developers to visit our site and submit ideas, helping us tap into the global pool of innovation and creativity.”

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Car Technology that Can Update Itself - Autotrader