Feature Story

Vroom Vroom: Auto Companies Embrace UC

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, IP Communications Magazines  |  February 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of Unified Communications Magazine

Americans love their cars. They’re pretty keen on their consumer electronics too. So marrying the two to deliver unified communications to drivers and passengers while they’re on the road just seems to be a natural thing to do. (Just make sure you don’t veer off a cliff in the process.)

The automotive industry had a strong presence at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with companies like Audi and Hyundai operating huge booths on the show floor, and top management from some of the nation’s leading automotive companies giving two of the six keynote addresses at the event. Rupert Stadler, chairman of the board of management at AUDI AG, was up first, with Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co., speaking later in the show. Meanwhile, a whole section of the exhibit floor was dedicated to solutions that bring consumer electronics and vehicles together.

Ford is among the automotive leaders providing voice-enabled and driver’s dash-based interfaces for drivers and passengers so distraction from using communications in the car is minimized.

“We’re trying to use technology to do things in safer ways,” Jim Buczkowski, fellow and director of electrical and electronic systems research and advanced engineering for Ford, tells Unified Communications (News - Alert) magazine.

Ford introduced a feature called SYNC starting with some of its late 2007/2008 model year vehicles. SYNC enables Ford vehicle owners to sync their Bluetooth mobile phones and media players to their cars so they can use voice commands to call people in their phonebooks and select songs by artist, genre, album name or other parameters.

Then, in late 2009/early 2010, Ford upgraded SYNC with the 911 assist feature, which allows motorists to easily reach a public safety access point, or PSAP. The company also now offers a vehicle health report as part of SYNC. Vehicle health report alerts the driver if the vehicle needs an oil change or other service.

Ford has continued to enhance SYNC, which is standard on Lincoln vehicles and available as a $395 option for most Ford-branded vehicles, by adding a widget-type service and a traffic corrections and information feature. The former allows users to access SYNC via voice command to tap into news, sports, downloadable and voice-guided directions. The latter leverages SYNC and user phones to deliver directions.

There are more than 2 million vehicles with SYNC on the road today, the take rate on the SYNC option is well over 70 percent, and cars with SYNC turn twice as fast on the lot as those without SYNC.

Ford research shows that keeping people’s eyes on the road and hands on the wheel is the best way to keep them safe, Buczkowski says.

“We want to create the experiences so you can do things with the short glances” and voice commands, he says.

Beyond just helping motorists and their passengers connect, more safely connect and enjoy music, and get directions and other content, Ford also aims to leverage technology to help save fuel by providing tips and eco-friendly routes, and to prevent accidents. The company is working on an accident avoidance solution called ABICAS that warns motorists if they have inadequate space between them and their vehicle in front of them, will pre-charge the vehicle’s brakes if the system senses they might be needed, does blind spot detection and helps drivers avoid fender benders when they’re backing out.

The car was also the focus of a demonstration that Alcatel Lucent (News - Alert) staged at CES along with select ng connect program partners. Laureen R. Cook, vice president of 4G/LTE strategy-emerging technology at Alcatel Lucent, explains that while the application has yet to be commercially deployed, it could be ready to launch very quickly if an interested party stepped forward.    

Among the ng connect applications demonstrated at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show was The Connected Car, which Alcatel Lucent put together with partner QNX Software Systems, which offers a real-time embedded OS.

This includes in-vehicle infotainment and advanced safety features, but while the car is in drive the driver has no access to the entertainment, notes Cook. Each seat in the vehicle (in this case it was a Toyota) has its own screen, through which passengers can make a phone call, and have their own unique views into their own selections of games, widgets, movies and other content. They also have the ability to pull content from their home-based devices and to purchase content from online portals. Each passenger has a Bluetooth headset, so as to reduce driver distraction, Cook says. The Connected Car includes its own Wi-Fi hotspot. And the vehicle’s interface is ties into the user’s home gateway so driver and passengers can do home energy monitoring and control remotely. Of course, a GPS system is also part of the mix, and the related application not only provides directions, but offers quick links and maps to nearby banks, coffee spots, gas stations, hospitals and malls.

Once uptake of LTE (News - Alert), which companies like Verizon just started rolling out late last year, hits 60 percent nationwide, Cook says she expects car manufacturers to support this application set.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi