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The Internet of the Automobile

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Thirty years ago a "thinking car" was the stuff of fantasy TV dramas. Three decades later a new breed of intelligent automobiles have driven off the set of Knight Rider and onto our roads making it easier than ever before to navigate from place to place. It's hardly surprising then that one of the hottest topics at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the "Internet of the Automobile" i.e. the Connected Car.

In fact six of the ten major automakers were present at the show, highlighting the extent to which boundaries between consumer technology and the car have blurred in recent years. With Google's self driving cars being actively tested in California and Nevada, proto-types for autonomous vehicles from Toyota and Audi are garnering plenty of attention, but also raising serious questions around safety and liability.

The heartbeat of the connected car is a set of new applications and driver services powered by "big data". With much of the modern vehicle mechanics managed by software, the connected car has become more than just a way plug in your iPod or listen to Pandora but a powerful navigation aide designed to reduce the time, fuel and frustration we waste every day stuck in traffic. As a vast source of information for improving navigation, the connected car is opening up new ways to improve urban mobility for all drivers.

Today's connected cars already provide motorists with the fastest route to their destination based on real-time road conditions, but that's just the beginning. Soon, your car will not only provide the quickest route, but also alert you to the optimum departure time to make a meeting in your calendar based on current traffic conditions. In hazardous weather conditions, it will know the routes with the least amount of ice and snow and when you arrive in a new town it will be able to navigate you to the entrance of the closest, least expensive parking or EV charging location.

Below are just some of the innovations that will improve the driving experience this year:

Top 5 Connected-Car Innovations at CES 2013

Last Night a Ford Fusion Saved my Life
Improved driver safety is an area where connected cars truly come into their own - provided of course in-car functionality is hands free. Imagine for a minute you are driving alone at night and your car comes off the road. In the future connected cars will be able to detect that your vehicle has crashed, and as long as you have signal, would be able to auto-dial 999 on your behalf and provide your exact GPS location to the emergency services. In fact, this technology is already in place as part of the Ford SYNC and OnStar platforms.

Better Services for Bypassing the Jam

UK drivers spend around 32 hours a year stuck in gridlock - even worse if your travels take you to London (71 hours idle) or Manchester (45 hours). While basic navigation systems are great for getting you from A-B, we all know that the shortest route is not always quickest. More sophisticated navigation systems can automatically adapt your route according to both real time expected traffic conditions over the course of your journey minimizing travel time, fuel consumption the dreaded unexpected delay. Additionally, the increasing use of speed data crowd-sourced from actual vehicles and devices traveling the roads vs. just limited areas where government road sensors have been installed allows automakers and transportation agencies to know traffic conditions for all roads - providing drivers with better alternative routes around the day's jams than what's available today.

The Car As The Ultimate Mobile Device

Both Ford and General Motors revealed developer programs for their in-car software platforms at CES, as the dynamic in-car dash gains momentum. While some may argue that the Smartphone or Tablet is the domain of the app, there is real value in driving apps tailored for ease of use in the car. Firstly from a safety perspective these apps will integrate with steering wheel controls, heads up displays in the instrument cluster and better voice recognition systems in the car to help keep drivers hands on the wheel and eyes on the road as much as possible. Secondly these apps can tap directly into vehicle data not available on a Smartphone, to help you drive more efficiently to use less fuel, avoid dangerous roads covered in snow and ice, navigate around unexpected road closures due to flooding or locate the nearest charging station based on when your vehicle will run out of charge.

Parking gets a Virtual Concierge

Whether you're heading to a nearby cinema with the family or on a business trip to an unknown town, chances are you'll need to find a parking spot. Now, thanks to in-car parking services from INRIX, Ford and Toyota connected car drivers can avoid running the roadside ticket gauntlet or aimlessly snaking through multi-storey car parks looking for a space. With listings for 42,000 car parks across Europe, this service goes beyond static points of interest on a map and reveals the closest car park to your location, the number of free spaces and even directs you there.

Driving Anthems go Digital

A glove compartment filled with scratched CDs used to be a road trip staple, replaced in recent years by iPod docks and connectors, but the growth in digital downloads is fueling more change still. At this year's CES there were already a host of in-dash music streaming services from the likes of Pandora and iHeartRadio battling for in-car entertainment supremacy. In the future, this could go a step further, as the connected car becomes the ultimate mobile media center, auto-syncing with your home network every time you pull into your drive. Embracing this change, Amazon launched the Amazon Cloud Player app for Ford SYNC at the show, allowing Ford drivers to access cloud stored digital music in car.