Cars in the Cloud

With contributions from Mark Levy

Many electrical and digital systems dominate today’s vehicles. For example, the onboard diagnostics port, OBD-II, has been mandatory for U.S. cars since 1996. More recently, some of these data have become more accessible to the driver. Cars can now send information directly to the dashboard alerting the driver of upcoming service requirements, or any warning for that matter, replacing the traditional red light on the dashboard.

In the last few years, however, we have witnessed significant “in-car” technical improvements such as a range of native applications like advanced navigation systems. Some examples: GM’s OnStar system (introduced in 1995) provides a great early example of automotive telematics, and Ford’s newer Sync System (powered by Microsoft) integrates in-car entertainment, vehicle diagnostics, and navigation capabilities.

Although significant data messaging takes place within today’s automobiles, it is rare to find cars where the majority of this information is directly accessible to the driver without external hardware, let alone connected to the Cloud. But of course, there’s a Cloud story here. With the rapid progress of in-car technology coupled with new, advanced Cloud services, it was only a matter of time before the new concept of Cars in the Cloud becomes a reality.

Driving Your Car in the Cloud

Today, the intersection between automobiles and consumer electronics is expanding. The features that are already on the market and will continue to improve at a rapid pace are all based on three elements:

  • Smart car – Software is responsible for delivering functionality that in previous generations were made possible by analog devices
  • Cloud – The ability to deliver services from the car manufacturer as well as from other providers automatically over the Internet
  • Connectivity –High speed, reliable, secure communications between the car and various services that various providers are lining up to offer.

However, with every vendor Cloudwashing their offerings, crossing off words like “Web” from their marketing and writing in “Cloud,” it’s important to ask if Cars in the Cloud is really nothing more than connecting autos to the Web. While clearly some vendors have yet to move past Cloudwashing, the primary essential characteristic of Cloud, namely elasticity, is critical to the successful implementation of the Cars in the Cloud concept.  Since automobiles cannot afford software failures while driving, it would more than a minor inconvenience should any driver ever see a response on the screen saying “capacity exceeded, please try again later.”  In order to ensure that such problems never occur, the Cloud supporting the services must be elastic, and respond promptly to any failure.

Cloud provisioning is also a key concept to the successful implementation of Cars in the Cloud. When we acquire a new car, we should be able to follow a simple procedure to make our new auto known to the Cloud, so that all the services we purchased are immediately available in the car.  Clearly, in order for this process to work satisfactorily, the provisioning of such services must be done automatically with no human intervention.

Example: The Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S is more than a next-generation electric automobile. Examining the infrastructure behind the Tesla Model S provides insight into the Car in the Cloud concept, and offers a glimpse of the future. This vehicle features a seventeen inch screen, completely replacing the manual buttons that you would normally see in a normal car.

With a typical car, there are so many physical buttons and switches that the manufacturer must roll out a new model year to make even the most basic change to the car’s functionality. In contrast, by moving these types of buttons to a digital interface, Tesla can completely change the configuration and functionality of their cars – without significant physical changes to the vehicle. For example, if enough Tesla Model S drivers request the digital button to open the sun roof to move to a different location, all that the development team must do is produce a new release and push it to all cars.  In other words, a Car in the Cloud is an automobile that can change over time without requiring owners to buy an upgraded model.

To accomplish this feat, Tesla’s programmed their on-board computer by customizing Google’s Android mobile operating system. Android is an open source stack that powers many popular consumer devices such as smartphones, tablets, and now – automobiles.  Tesla’s CEO has also said that the Model S will support third-party apps to extend each car’s functionality. Since a Tesla Model S is blessed with a large display and a handful of starter apps, it is clear that over time, the company will push more and more apps to the car via the Tesla Cloud.  But will there be a Tesla app marketplace? Will the commercial market be able to use the Tesla API and implement an ever-growing number of Tesla apps? Will there be a process for Tesla certify these apps prior to inclusion in the app store? Clearly there is an opportunity for an active marketplace that could set the trend for the automotive industry at large.

Connectivity, Scalability, and Security

The Tesla Model S is connected to the Tesla Cloud over a 3G link.  Each automobile regularly calls home, providing Tesla engineers with extensive information regarding the performance of each car.  In most cases, Tesla can fix any issues with your car without any involvement from the driver. Further, this process allows Tesla to listen to its customers and decide what features the manufacturer should add.  Since the entire auto is managed by software from the Tesla Cloud, it is possible to complete the development and testing in order to deliver upgrades with ease.  Of course, they still have to worry about scalability.  Clearly, it is imperative that the infrastructure behind the Tesla is capable of handling the volume of autos and data that the Cloud and the vehicles exchange.

The flip side of this ease of upgrade is security. Just how susceptible is a Tesla car to viruses and hackers?  For example, earlier this year, hackers commandeered software for remotely operating medical equipment and elevators.  Just how secure is the Tesla Cloud anyway? Only time will tell, but Tesla has already expended significant resources to ensure that compromises cannot happen, even though we never want to say that breaches are truly impossible. Yes, Tesla encrypts all data, establishes a VPN directly to the car, and signs and verifies all software packages. Furthermore, it’s only possible to upgrade an automobile from the Cloud when the car is charging (meaning, when it’s not moving). The upgrade takes place overnight and the next morning, you can see some few features in your car.

The ZapThink Take

Tesla’s Car in the Cloud concept still seems quite futuristic, but it’s still early days. As the technology matures, connected vehicles have the potential to change many aspects of how people own and operate their motor vehicles. Some ideas:

  • Car Insurance – Currently, car insurance works much like health insurance. However, while we need of health insurance 24/7, doesn’t it make sense that we would only need the majority of my car insurance while we’re driving? Be on the lookout for “pay-as-you-drive” insurance programs in the future.
  • Environmental Applications – The way that you drive has implications for your fuel range (or in the case of Tesla, the car’s battery range). Over time, cars will be able to identify opportunities to minimize fuel consumption based on driving style.
  • Highway Infrastructure Applications – Yes, we have E-ZPass now, but we could greatly simplify electronic toll collection and congestion charging without having to put up more tollbooths and cameras. The amount of money that we could save for highway infrastructure is enormous.
  • Convenience Applications – Connect my phone to my car and begin heating up my car when I start walking toward it. Tell me exactly where my car is at a parking lot without having to take a picture of a sign at the airport or hold up my keychain as I conduct a random walk through the lot.
  • Advanced Safety and Security – I can track my iPhone if it’s stolen, and even shut it down so that anyone who takes it will find themselves with nothing more than a shiny piece of metal. My car should be able to do the same. LoJack in the Cloud.
  • Automated driving – even though we’ve all heard of Google’s self-driving car, this capability still seems to be the stuff of science fiction. When it becomes a reality, however, you can bet it will take full advantage of advanced Car in the Cloud capabilities.
  • Social Networking – Based on the fact that there could be roughly 300 million cars in the U.S. and more than 1 billion worldwide, we can project an opportunity to integrate social networking into cars moving forward.  For example, cars could start talking to each other in order to identify road conditions along the route. Music recommendations, rest stop data, and tourist information can stream directly into the vehicle. Your car might even start tweeting. Imagine the possibilities!

About Dov LevyDov Levy

Mr. Levy is the President and CTO for Dovel Technologies, Inc., the company he co-founded. He has responsible for creating innovative solutions for the federal government by Dovel.

As an entrepreneur and a technologist with over 25 years of hands-on experience, Mr. Levy has a deep understanding of what it takes to deliver a state-of-the art solution with technologies such as Service Oriented Architecture, Cloud and Mobile computing. He has solid experience with delivering solutions using open source components.

Mark LevyAbout Mark Levy

Mark Levy is the founder of App Champs LLC, a company focused on developing and executing innovative technology strategies for small businesses. Mark has deep experience in implementing inbound marketing, mobile, and e-commerce solutions across a wide range of industries.