Hold: Auto makers still test driving broadband connections in cars

Eddie Hold

Cars and phones are usually a bad combination; I should know having just spent four hours avoiding half-crazed weekend drivers who seemed far more intent on their calls than on the road (or cars) ahead. So any discussion of cars and data connections is certain to raise the hackles of certain government bodies (such as the National Transit Safety Board) and not without some good reason.

It's an opportunity that the carriers--and car manufacturers--keep returning to as another core location where people (not necessarily the driver) will want to connect. After all, we connect at home, at work and while walking down the street; of course we want to connect in the car too. And, of course, we do. The smartphone is quickly superseding the portable navigation devices and streaming music is quickly becoming a popular alternative to the car radio and CD player.

But presently, the connectivity is primarily limited to the smartphone: the car itself--with a few exceptions--remains a barren wasteland of connectivity. And not for want of trying: The road is littered with failed attempts to bring connectivity to the car, such as the much-vaunted Wingcast venture formed by Qualcomm and Ford all the way back in 2000. This initiative, like many others, failed because the consumer desire--and need--for a broadband pipe to the car didn't equate into dollars. Recall too that in 2000 no one had a smartphone and the need for a data connection was not something that consumers could wrap their heads around.

More importantly, there was simply no point to the connection back then, but now the market has transformed. As mentioned, the smartphone has transformed many content sources, including music (streaming), navigation and video. In car entertainment used to involve a DVD player: now it could (with a good connection) include Netflix, HBO GO, or YouTube.

Picking the Pipe

That broadband will come to the car is a moot point: the car already has broadband every time your smartphone is available for synching. The trickier question is how broadband will be delivered to the car: should it continue to be smartphone centric, or should the car have its very own connection? Neither solution is optimal currently: having a connection dedicated to the car is possible, but then you are paying a monthly data fee specifically fro the in-car use. Conversely, using your smartphone typically limits the types of connection you can offer (especially with data caps) and remains primarily a smartphone-centered solution.

Both option have potential, and are being further developed. Take, for example, Cadillac, which is showing off a new, connected interface for its cars. The connection supports streaming music, web searches to improve navigation (and to search for phone numbers, etc.). Such a solution is inherently fixed in design and is based around a broadband connection. And, if you can afford the car, you can afford the connection.

Indeed, the connection fee could be included in the price of the car. OnStar comes free for a certain period of time for new car owners, as does satellite radio. Further, the broadband connection could be priced based on the types of content that one uses it for, with a base service included for free, and streaming music being an optional fee, for example. In many respects, the old Kindle model is applicable, where the consumer never knowingly paid for the cellular connection, even though they used it.

The key to the success of the integrated solution (apart from a reasonable pricing model) is the level of integration into the car and related telematics. Such a solution needs to be seamless: music should sync from the cloud, or the home; video should be easily accessible, and even gaming should be possible (all for the passengers, not for the driver of course). For the driver, improved traffic updates are a must-have if also somewhat of a clichéd solution.

The Smartphone as the Hub

The alternative is to continue using the smartphone as the center of the world. The only problem with this solution is that the screen is not ideal and the controls are borderline dangerous while navigating the Long Island Expressway on a Sunday (you all know who you were!).  This is where solutions such as MirrorLink, a consortium of handset and car manufacturers, comes in. The premise behind MirrorLink is to connect the phone more cohesively to the car systems. Rather than just offering Bluetooth integration for voice services, the solution would provide a larger screen for the smartphone, as well as integrated control of the device through the car controls. This would mean that the smartphone's navigation option would become the car's navigation, using the "big screen" of the car to provide a more suitable solution. Combine this with a touch screen in the car and it's all pretty appealing (as long as you don't forget your phone).

Such a solution would provide a strong solution for the majority of people who do not need a "Cadillac" solution such as the Cadillac product.  Quite when these products will hit the market is as yet uncertain: there's one after-market car system and very little handset support available right now. So in the interim, we need to use the easier--albeit more primitive solution, combining the use of tablets with a mobile hotspot. The benefit being that you can use the mobile hotspot outside the car too.

Of course, as I try to explain to my constantly-connected kids, looking through the windows and watching the world go by has its own attractions (I lose that argument).

Eddie Hold is the vice president of The NPD Group's Connected Intelligence business unit. In this role, Eddie is responsible for managing the overall unit, maintaining the direction, creation and expansion of the content.