Could the auto industry benefit from a little LTE?

A couple of weeks ago, Alcatel-Lucent announced the ng Connect program, a multi-industry initiative dedicated to the deployment of wireless broadband based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) and other high-bandwidth technologies.

Translation: Imagine a world where you can access high-speed Internet from just about anywhere. The park. The beach. The local bike trail. All without wires or cables. Just one big ubiquitous wireless network.

But here's the kicker: The second paragraph of the announcement, which includes a quote from QNX CEO Dan Dodge, focuses on how wireless broadband will transform tomorrow's automobile. Not netbooks, not cellphones, not portable music players, but the car. You know, that thing nobody is buying.

Has Alcatel-Lucent been smoking something? Or are they on to something? Maybe I'm biased, but I'm leaning towards door number two.

Let's step back a bit. The car, despite falling on temporary hard times, is the one thing that almost everyone in the world either has or wants. So, no question, the market will recover in one form or another. At the same time, automakers today are more desperate than ever to differentiate their vehicles from those of the competition. Adding cool applications -- navigation, multimedia, etc. -- is one way they hope to achieve that.

Just one problem: The car needs to run a lot of software to support these applications -- software that can become obsolete long before the car is ready for the junk heap. So automakers need a way to update software and content easily, without forcing customers to schlep their cars back to the dealership. Automakers also need to host as many applications as posible in the "cloud" -- that way, cars can access new applications on the fly, without need for software upgrades. Better yet, subscription-based cloud applications can provide automakers with a source of ongoing revenue. And revenue, if you haven't noticed, is the one thing that automakers need more than anything else.

A technology like LTE can make all this possible. So, maybe Alcatel-Lucent isn't so crazy to promote the broadband-enabled car. After all, the car is the one big thing that, until now, hasn't been transformed by the Internet.

Now, if only someone could figure out how to wirelessly power my car's block heater, that would really be something...


Anonymous said...

“So automakers need a way to update software and content easily, without forcing customers to schlep their cars back to the dealership”
Thinking about practical issues –
Say a car has two software repositories, A and B. Initially A is the working repository; B is an exact copy of A. When it is time to update, the new software version is transmitted to repository B fully automatically. At an appropriate moment (for example, after the key is inserted) the driver is asked whether he will like to update the software. If he is not interested, that’s end of the story. Otherwise the software is rebooted from the repository B and driver is asked to perform a number of tests. If the tests are successful and the driver provides authorization for the operation, repository B becomes the active one, repository A is considered a backup copy.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Your comment reminds me of the saying, "Beyond every mountain is another mountain." Once LTE is established, it will provide opportunities for automakers, but with those opportunities come challenges. For instance, once the technical issues have been ironed out, how easy will it be to encourage users to upgrade their cars? Assuming that the process is made simple and intuitive (and that's a big assumption), people might still be nervous about doing something wrong. It won't be a universal problem, however. Jeep owners, for instance, tend to be very hands on, and many of them will probably welcome the opportunity to install software updates -- they would rather do it themselves than have the dealer do it for them.

Anonymous said...

As to the mountains beyond mountains – that is good, keeps people busy.
Other considerations –
Computer hardware in a car will become obsolete before the mechanical parts wear out. A five year old gear box will work; what about the latest software on a five year old computer?
Also consider impact on the new car sales.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Good point about the longetivity of computer software and hardware in the car. Even if many applications are hosted in the cloud, will a system designed today still be able to access cloud-based applications 5 to 10 years from now? After all, what will the Internet look like then? And what will web browsers look like? Will we even have web browsers? And will it even matter if the in-car hardware and software become obsolete? By that time, people might have navigation systems embedded in their sunglasses, for all we know. The fact is, no one knows exactly how this will play out -- which makes it all the more interesting, of course. :-)