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Auto makers want their cars to be able to drive into the cloud.
Manufacturers like General Motors Co. (GM) and Ford Motor Co. (F) are using the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to show off a set of services that operate online, or through the "cloud," and allow customers to remotely track their cars, diagnose what's wrong with them and potentially much more, such as avoiding accidents.
The effort is part of a growing trend among car makers to use the Internet to offer features that have become commonplace throughout the technology industry. Along with that, though, comes the problems associated with accumulating so much consumer data, specifically how will that information be used and protected.
"It's bringing about a new automotive era in my eyes, where cars will have intelligence," said Thilo Koslowski, analyst for Gartner. "The car will become more than getting from 'point A' to 'point B,' but it will become self aware of what's happening around it, what's happening to it and even what's happening to the driver."
For example, GM's OnStar unit said it would offer mobile application developers access to its computer systems that send and receive data from its six million active subscriber's cars. With access to OnStar's systems, mobile apps would be able to beam trip plans to the car's navigation system or pinpoint the car's location.
"We're not just talking about putting an app in the car," said Vijay Iyer, an OnStar spokesman. "This is about giving access to vehicle-centric information."
However, growing volumes of that information will present privacy dilemmas for the automakers, not unlike what social networks and credit-card companies have faced. While automakers are confident they have constructed the proper protection and monitoring for the data, and are quick to note that customers are opting into these programs, industry observers say the auto companies will likely make mistakes along the way.
"It's going to be a consistent tradeoff of safety versus surveillance," said Nash Parker, head of Alcatel-Lucent SA's (ALU) emerging technology efforts, which include prototyping wirelessly connected cars with auto manufacturers.
"The younger the customer is, the less they care about privacy and the car companies are betting on that," he added.
Most electric vehicles already have integrated communication and sensor technologies in order to help customers manage their car's recharging cycles. Gartner's Koslowski said more than half of all new mainstream vehicles will have this kind of technology by 2016.
By interpreting data sent from the car's sensors and engine readouts, app developers could create applications that can help track individual employee's use of company cars, for example, or to gauge when a healthcare worker showed up at a patient's home and how long they stayed.
Some of these efforts have already begun. Google Inc. (GOOG) put OnStar's technology on its fleet of nearly 20 Chevrolet Volt electric cars that can be used by employees on its Menlo Park, Calif. campus. The technology has shaved time from employee's trips, said Parag Chokshi, a Google spokesman.
"This gives us a level of data we didn't have before," he said, noting that Google has for the past four years installed various sensors and other technologies meant to track and analyze various aspects of its cars. Knowing how much energy the car has and how far it can go on its current charge "help us really optimize the fleet we have on campus."
Ford, known for its Sync technology, is allowing customers to download updates for its MyFord Touch onboard communications and entertainment system to a memory stick and update it on their own. In the past, customers had to rely on dealerships to update such software.
"It's something you take for granted with your consumer device, and now we're bringing that into the vehicle," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technical officer.
Still, many technologies such as cars sharing sensor information with one another to avoid accidents, help with navigation and improve traffic flow are about five years away. But it's coming, auto executives say.
"The challenge for automakers is keeping the car fresh," said Derek Kuhn, a vice president of sales and marketing at Research In Motion Ltd.'s (RIMM) QNX software unit, which writes software for major auto manufacturers. "The next two or three years, there's a lot of really cool stuff that's going to happen."
-By Ian Sherr, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-439-6455; email@example.com