Intelligent car 1,000-km corridor between Ontario and Quebec envisioned

The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) is doing research on building a fourth-generation wireless broadband network between Windsor, Ont. and Quebec City that could serve as a testing ground for networked vehicle applications of the future.

By building a 1,000 km Long Term Evolution (LTE) network following Highway 401, CATA hopes to attract companies from around the world to the test bed. Possible applications for a networked vehicle run the gamut from automatic swerving to avoiding a collision, re-routing to avoid a traffic jam, or finding a carpool buddy online.

But both the ICT and automotive industry can’t be sure what will work, and what consumers will even want.

They need a real-world testing ground. Build it, and they will come, says Barry Gander, executive vice-president at CATA.

“An advantage of going the full route from Windsor to Quebec City is that there are so many different driving conditions, he says. “It would tell you whether the driver or passenger could take one type of information, but not another kind.”

CATA has received $250,000 in funding for its research – in equal parts from the federal government and the Ontario government. Its Networked Vehicle Foundation recently hosted a Toronto meeting to develop the concept of networked vehicles and hosted ICT companies such as Intel, IBM, Cisco, HP and CA.

The thinking is that North America’s auto industry has hit the wall. It needs some major innovation breakthrough to bring it back to its glory days. With each new model of car now requiring $1 billion research and development just for the IT in the vehicle, the answer seems clear. A new cross-breed sector dubbed “ICT-Auto”.

It’s not that far off from being a reality, according to Thilo Koslowski, vice president automotive and vehicle ICT at Gartner Inc. Consumers will likely consider in-vehicle connectivity to be just as important as traditional car safety features by 2016.

“The test bed project is certainly the right thing to do and I think you’ll see this developed all over the world,” he says. “There are still a lot of questions to be answered – How reliable are these technologies? Do they really work when you’re driving over a longer distance?”

CATA’s proposed test-bed would be the longest in the world, Koslowski adds. It’s also the only one looking to build using LTE. That will make it unique, and expensive.

“LTE is important for this kind of scenario for future applications that require broadband connections to the vehicle,” he says. “It’s the right technology to deploy in this scenario.”

But CATA doesn’t know who will build the network or how it will be paid for. Despite this, they hope to start its creation in January 2010.

“You can build a lot of wired highway for the cost of a little bit of paved highway,” Gander says. “There’s nothing out there that’s tapping into the next generation of wireless.”

Networked vehicles could support a wide variety of applications. Categories include in-car entertainment for passengers and drivers, safety features, fuel efficiency adjustments, and communications.  

“If a car is approaching you in the fog and you’re about to have a head-on collision, then your car could automatically break away and avoid it,” Gander gives as an example.”

“Or your car might recognize that another car is taking the same route at the same time as you drive to work,” he gives another. “Then it could offer the Facebook contact of the vehicle’s owner to see if they want to carpool.”

Such novel applications, however, may face challenges gaining consumer acceptance. Technology and driving have recently come into conflict with the prevalence of mobile phones being used in the car. Ontario will become the latest jurisdiction to ban the use of handheld devices for drivers this Fall.

The risk of driver distraction – and the potential negative perception of a car that could take away control of the steering wheel from the driver – are just some of the issues faced, Koslowski says.

“You could minimize distraction by having an intelligent software agent,” the analyst suggests. “So while you’re passing a car on the highway, maybe at that point you wont’ receive a phone call. But if you’re stuck in traffic, crawling along, that’s a different story.”

Consumers are already showing an interested in wired cars, Gander says.

“A Ford Focus with Microsoft’s Sync will outsell a Ford Focus without it two to one,” he says.

Sync is a Microsoft-developed product available in Ford cars that can be used to control cell phones and mp3 players in the car with voice command, receive traffic updates and turn by turn directions, or emergency services and local business listings. It is similar to General Motor’s On Star service.

A younger, car-buying consumer will want to take the digital experience with them into new cars, Gander says. The test bed project spanning Ontario’s major population swath could help car manufacturers and technology companies figure out how to make that happen.

“You have two huge sectors coming together to form this new animal of ICT-Auto,” he says.

CATA hopes the industry interest in its test bed project continues. It will stoke that allure with another major meeting next year in San Francisco.

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