x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Driving the future with smarter cars

Cutting-edge gadgetry behind the wheel is big business, with car makers and consumer electronics companies teaming up with big investments. Night-vision cameras, concert-hall sound systems and sophisticated smartphone integration are among the latest industry offerings.

Harman showcased its vehicle connectivity technology, which operates and activates devices aboard a car via a built-in WLan, in Berlin last month. Rainer Jensen / EPA
Harman showcased its vehicle connectivity technology, which operates and activates devices aboard a car via a built-in WLan, in Berlin last month. Rainer Jensen / EPA

Before "smart cars", if you could connect your iPod while driving it was considered a technological miracle.

But these days, upscale branded vehicles come packaged with night-vision cameras to flash warnings whenever pedestrians dart on to a dark road.

Others, such as BMW cars with "ConnectedDrive" technology, alert drivers via SMS when they leave their lights on. They can also automatically call emergency services after a crash and deploys airbags.

"I think the vehicle is one of the final frontiers for consumer electronics," says Steve Koenig, the director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

"The industry is beginning to realise that vision of a seamless, connected experience no matter if you're home, walking down the street with a smartphone or behind the wheel."

A wider array of consumer electronics technology is popping up in cars, including navigation and premium audio systems, as well as gadgets that claim to boost the fuel efficiency or safety of a vehicle.

Collectively, sales of these so-called "infotainment" systems are projected to grow 3 per cent compared with last year, to US$33.5 billion (Dh123.04bn) and forecast to top $41bn in 2016, according to data tracked by the research firm IHS iSuppli.

This link-up between the technology and car industries is expected to continue growing as the major players add more electronic features into their vehicles.

Luca De Ambroggi, a senior analyst for automotive infotainment at IHS, points out that gadgets such as Bluetooth, which help drivers talk hands-free through their smartphones while on the road, are forecast to do particularly well.

While "smart cars" that boast surround-sound systems and night-vision cameras may be stamped with well-known brands such as BMW, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz, behind the scenes, these features are increasingly the work of collaboration with consumer electronics companies.

In February, Intel launched a $100 million "connected car" fund specifically to invest in companies that develop devices for vehicles based on speech- or gesture-recognition technology as well as eye-tracking gadgetry.

Nokia's $8.1bn acquisition five years ago of Navteq, a digital map supplier, has helped the smartphone maker push into the navigation business.

Its Lumia 920 phone, which was announced last month, has enhanced versions of Nokia's maps to give drivers access to a country's road maps, including the UAE, even when a device is not connected to the internet.

The maps also feature 3D views of streets and buildings, speed limits and alerts for drivers if they exceed the maximum, so they can avoid picking up fines.

A great deal of electronics and online shops now sell kits, for about $30, that secure smartphones to the windscreens of cars.

Audio companies are also eagerly partnering up with luxury car brands.

Harman International Industries, a US audio and "infotainment" equipment company, has its technology packed into Rolls-Royce's Phantom Series II in the UAE through a surround-sound system that places speakers at different depths within the Dh1.9m vehicle.

"It gives the impression of sitting in row one or 20 of a concert," says Alaa Tarabay, a spokesman for the Middle East & Africa office of Rolls-Royce.

The proliferation of fancy multi-speaker systems has pushed lower-cost brands to try to up the musical ante.

Toyota's Camry in the Emirates includes a six-speaker package, and the company's Land Cruiser features 14 speakers from Harman's JBL brand. This "premium" sound system also works with an in-vehicle DVD player and blasts phone calls through Bluetooth-compatible smartphones.

For its part, Ford is trying to get technology into smaller vehicles so that drivers can make hands-free calls, listen to music from MP3 players and pull up directions on a navigation system.

In the future, the Detroit car giant hopes to decrease the number of vehicles on the road at the same time by having more models wirelessly communicating with each other to determine the best route by avoiding busy areas.

"You need, now, the cars to talk to each other," says Saeed Barbat, the executive technical leader for safety research and advanced engineering at Ford. "That will give a significant improvement in improving the route, reducing the congestion of the vehicles and the number of miles of travel."

Yet the proliferation of technology within vehicles has led countries to try to ban drivers from making calls, texting or checking email as well as accessing entertainment such as music or videos from smartphones.

In the United States, the CEA has been a vocal critic against this movement in certain cases, saying it disagrees with recommendations calling for a ban on the use of portable electronics in non-emergencies.

"There is no real-world evidence to support such a blanket prohibition unless one would also ban other potential distractions, such as eating, drinking, applying make-up and engaging with children while in the vehicle," says Michael Petricone, a senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs at CEA.

Still, the battle goes on, and both electronics makers and auto manufacturers plan to debut new gadgets and technology kits for vehicles. Some of the latest will even be unveiled at the Gitex Technology Week that begins October 14 in Dubai.