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Broadband to the Car

If you haven’t noticed, car makers, wireless carriers and wireless equipment manufacturers have slowly been working on making the automobile a mobile media room. OK this may not be the only reason, but there is a great deal of forward movement to make the automobile “connect” with the outside world, in real-time, for a variety of reasons, particularly the idea that this ability will enhance driver safety. You will hear the term “connected car” more and more as auto makers offer options that essentially keep an automobile connected, wirelessly, to the outside world. In reality the term has a lot less to do with delivering multimedia content and a lot more to do with providing a safe driving experience. The connected car concept is not merely a computer tied to some form of wireless backbone, rather it could consist of several wireless connections utilizing satellite and terrestrial networks as well as wireless networks intended to communicate with other nearby vehicle and roadside systems.

The technology under the hood has expanded at a massive rate with each new model year. Modern cars may have 60 or more separate microprocessors and more than 200 individual on-board sensors. For these microprocessors to communicate with each other, manufacturers developed and implemented the Controller Area Network (CAN or CAN-Bus). The CAN permits host-less communications on a common bus, not unlike the old RS-485-type serial communications protocol used to interconnect test equipment and other devices before Ethernet became the most practical method. The CAN is also the reason you or your service technician can plug into that receptacle under the dashboard and read all the various parameters in your car. This method of networking is expected to be replaced by wired and wireless Ethernet networks in the future.

Enter IPv6

Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) has been (and still is) the most widely used IP addressing protocol in the world, however it is limited in the total amount of individual addresses (4,294,967,296) it can assign as it is based on a 32-bit address. Some experts have the available addresses exhausted sometime in 2011. In contrast the IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses and will provide a virtually unlimited pool of IP addresses. The availability of new addresses is essential to support the myriad of equipment and devices that will be able to communicate over a network. These devices include mobile phones, wireless broadband, cable modems, appliances, automobiles and virtually anything that can be connected to a network. The connected car alone could use 100s of individual IP addresses as the CAN-Bus is replaced by an IP-based network. The connected car will also utilize multiple IP addresses to communicate to the various external wireless connections required for things like on-board navigation, system diagnostic, broadband data and voice systems.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) permit vehicles to communicate with other vehicles and roadside systems in order to share safety warnings, traffic and other information with other vehicles. Seems simple enough, but when implemented, ITS can actually act as a form of traffic control between vehicles operating in the same area interacting not only with the driver, but also having the ability to control the vehicle to avoid collisions or simply make traffic move more efficiently. The technology that will be used to allow vehicles to communicate with each other is known as Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V). V2V utilizes a portion of the unlicensed 5.9GHz band set aside for Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC). In the United States, the DSRC channel plan consists of seven 10MHz channels. The system could also support other non-ITS related services such as providing access to e-mail or other Web-based services. Currently services like OnStar are providing certain services such as crash notification, emergency communication, the ability to read operation parameters, remote door unlocking and engine shutdown (in the event of a theft). These systems utilize national cellular networks to connect with the vehicle.

The car as a media room

It has been several years since terrestrial radio has enjoyed being the only form of entertainment in the car. Americans spend an average of 45 hours each week in the car, and most of that is spent in the coveted morning and afternoon drive-time hours. The options for getting your fix of entertainment in the car have multiplied – Terrestrial radio, CDs, streaming audio and video, Internet, email, MP3 players, DVD, satellite radio and fixed broadband video delivery. While most of the Internet-based services have yet to realize full integration into an automobile, they are currently available on a typical smartphone. Some auto makers and after-market manufacturers are offering docking options for certain brands of smartphones that allow drivers to access the features of the phone through the built-in radio system.

There have been several approaches to implementing full broadband connectivity to automobiles; one of the more interesting concepts has been created by a consortium called ng Connect. The group was formed by Alcatel-Lucent and now has more than 50 members. The group developed a concept vehicle that utilizes next generation 4G/LTE networks to provide an always-on broadband connection called the LTE Connected Car. LTE represents the latest generation of wireless data standards. It is currently in the beginning stages of deployment by the U.S. wireless carriers. What sets LTE apart from earlier standards is drastically improved data throughput (up to 1Gb/s) and it is natively optimized for carrying multimedia content. These connected car concepts are also being tested using other current generation data standards such as WiMax and Wi-Fi, although these do not appear likely to be adopted widely by national carriers at this time.

It appears the lines are becoming increasingly blurry between the connected car and the smartphone, in terms of delivering multimedia content. Will there still be a place for the AM and FM buttons in these vehicles? While it is sad to witness local terrestrial radio getting lost in the noise of technology, it is exciting see how broadcast owners are adapting to streaming delivery platforms, which give those of us who moved away from our home markets the opportunity to once again listen to our favorite station while we are driving … anywhere in the world.

More on ng Connect

According to the executive summary of a recent study from the ng Connect Program (, features of the LTE Connected Car include: Standard features:

  • Access to social and communication information, as well as streamed radio, TV and video content
  • Live updated information about traffic and locations of interest
  • Accident and emergency assistance, along with stolen vehicle recovery systems Enhanced features:
  • Screens in front and rear of the vehicle, with a total of four independently operated touchscreens
  • Wi-Fi access for portable devices
  • Device integration for mobile phones, media players, gaming and computers
  • Live map data
  • Video and audio services, such as on-demand movies, access to at-home DVRs and music catalogs, and Internet video
  • Location-based services, including Google Maps
  • Communication and messaging service access
  • Remote vehicle diagnostics, maintenance tracking and notifications systems
  • Natural language voice interaction for safetyMcNamara is president of Applied Wireless, Cape Coral, FL.