There may soon be an app to update you car
John R. Quain / New York Times
Computers can be upgraded with software and peripherals, and smartphones are able to add new functions by downloading an app. So why not a similar capability for the device that wields more processing power than either of those?
That would be your car, of course.
In a world where technologies come and go as often as Katy Perry changes her wardrobe, automakers are pressed to keep pace. To ensure that the growing array of electronics — controlling anything from navigation systems to sophisticated antilock brakes — do not become obsolete before the car's first oil change, engineers are creating vehicles that can adapt to new technologies and are flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen future developments.
It's a long way from the image of young hot-rodders installing aftermarket engine computers to increase horsepower; this is about the radical shift to designing cars from the ground up to be upgradeable.
"Cars need to be upgraded — over the air — and they have to have smartphone connections now," said Erik Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics, emphasizing the need for remote wireless car connections that would help owners avoid trips to the dealership.
It's not just about adding iPhone controls or Twitter updates to the dashboard. Upgradeable means being able to cull diagnostic information from a vehicle through, say, a satellite link, or having the ability to reprogram a transmission controller or recalibrate the braking system while the car is parked in your driveway.
It even entails the ability to change dashboard functions, Goldman said. Indeed, the networking giant Cisco has just such an experimental dashboard, comprising a triptych of LCD panels instead of conventional dials and gauges. It is essentially one giant touch screen on which iPad-generation drivers can drag and drop instruments, digital gauges and other information displays.
Not only can its appearance be personalized, but it can be upgraded with new functions, from a g-force meter to local weather warnings. Its design will accommodate systems that could issue vehicle-to-vehicle collision warnings or alert drivers about dangerous intersections ahead.
There are two main forces driving this strategy. First, while vehicle design cycles are now as short as two or three years, they still lag the pace of changes in software and communications technology, where major upheavals can arrive in a matter of months.
The second issue is that as vehicles use more advanced computer technology to improve performance and fuel efficiency — and, in the case of hybrids, control functions like charging rates and regenerative braking — they also require more sophisticated programming.
"Complexity is killing the industry," said Dirk Schlesinger, a senior director in Cisco's Internet business solutions group.
"We can't change the silicon fast enough," he said, referring to the processors that manage such tasks as traffic flow on a car's onboard network and operate highly refined systems that in an advanced hybrid might oversee battery temperature controls or regulate transitions between electric and gasoline operation.
"The car is becoming the most sophisticated piece of computer equipment you own," said Dave Evans, Cisco's chief futurist. Adopting a new perspective of what's parked in your garage will be required: that car will no longer be simply a mode of transportation, but rather a node on the network, he said.
Ford is on the cutting edge of openness. In December it introduced a feature called AppLink that lets drivers use smart phone apps like Pandora and Twitter. But it's more than merely a matter of, say, plugging an iPhone into the dash. The AppLink programs — all screened and approved by Ford — have access to the driver's controls, including voice commands and buttons on the steering wheel that drivers can use to skip through songs. Initially, AppLink works only with Sync-equipped 2011 Fiestas and 2012 Mustangs, but Ford plans to expand availability.
Taking a more conservative approach are automakers like Mercedes-Benz and OnStar, a General Motors subsidiary. Mercedes, as part of its recently updated onboard communications system called Mbrace, offers basic BlackBerry and iPhone applications that allow owners to lock or unlock their vehicles remotely.
For its part, OnStar has the Mylink app for iPhones and Android-based smartphones. It can be downloaded by customers but is limited to controlling functions like remote door locking, starting the car or checking the fuel level.
Some experimental vehicles, like A.J., a 2011 Ford Fiesta Ford that sent Twitter messages last summer about its status and location, have allowed researchers to tap directly into the car's Controller Area Network, which communicates with critical systems like the cruise control. Such access raises the fear that malicious hackers could wreak havoc.
Developers say they are aware of the danger. Nokia's approach, for example, lets the software receive information only from the network.
"We offer all the possible security methods," said Vesa Luiro, director of automotive business at Nokia, the cell phone maker. "But you need to implement them."
Nevertheless, the upgradeable car is coming, and it promises to offer features that sound fantastic today.
"Future upgrades may include changing the physical shape of the car for each driver and even the color of the paint," predicts Evans of Cisco. His job is to envision technologies 20-50 years in the future, so don't look for these options in 2012 models.
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