Connected cars get retro

The connected car revolution is an exciting development in the history of transportation. Those of us who own older vehicles models, however, might be feeling a bit left behind.

Where are our location services, detailed fuel consumption analysis, or on-the-fly diagnostics?

A host of ambitious start-up firms – in addition to several big names – are well aware of this yawning technological gap and have created products to narrow it.

Although their feature sets (not to mention their retail prices) vary, most offer the same core functionalities. These offerings don’t quite turn a dumb, disconnected vehicle into one that’s whip-smart and fully connected but they do make a driver’s life easier.

One smartening agent just arrived on the market in the US is Hum, a system cooked up by one of that country’s big mobile phone service incumbents, Verizon. As with competing products, Hum’s user interface is the driver’s smart phone, with the native app available for both the iOS and Android operating systems.

Hum promises near real-time diagnostics, allowing users to analyse the vehicle’s systems while they’re piloting the craft. If something major is wrong, the app will send alerts notifying the driver of the problem, plus offer potential fixes for the issue. Those not of a handy nature can estimate how much it’ll hurt their bank account with the app’s repair cost estimate feature. Hum is heavy on the assistance features – it can source 24/7 roadside help in case of a catastrophic breakdown, or arrange to deliver an emergency supply of petrol in case the tank is empty.

Some products like Hum emphasise the safety aspects of their technology. Others concentrate on the connectivity. An American start-up called Vinli brashly says on its website that its namesake product offers “the fastest Wi-Fi on wheels.” It offers unlimited access to a nationwide network powered by 4G LTE (in partnership with T-Mobile USA), with the device beaming out the signal to allow every passenger to utilise the network.

As is typical of dumb-to-clever vehicle devices its interface is a user’s smartphone, for which it has a number of different apps available for download. These include a vehicle tracking system (in case, heaven forbid, the car is lost or stolen), a trip logging app, and a virtual roadside assistant. At the time of the product’s launch this past August, around 20 apps were available out of the box, with others to come from third-party developers. Vinli anticipates that number will grow to around 150 by the end of this year.

These make-your-car-brighter solutions come in the form of an adapter that plugs directly into the automobile’s brain, the on-board vehicle diagnostics (OBD) port. Tapping into this interface allows a system or app to utilise the data the car produces. Potential users should be aware, however, that cars at or over the age of 20 or so might not have such a port; they’ve been mandated for vehicle makers in the US only since 1996 and in the EU starting 2001 for petrol cars and 2003 for diesel.

Meanwhile, most conversion products are powered by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and feature the 4G LTE connectivity that links Verizon’s Hum to the world. So the adapter can beam out both the car’s data, in addition to a robust internet connection to all devices inside the automobile.

Another adapter produced by an entity with heavy corporate backing – in this case a joint venture led by US electronics retailer Best Buy – is Zubie, which acts as a sort of mini-social network for a selected cluster of drivers (such as a family). Among the device’s slate of apps is one that allows a user to create groups that can swap driving-related information, such as the location of meetings/gatherings, and routes to certain destinations.

For the most part, dumb-to-clever devices roughly approximate the mobile phone provider contractor and pre-paid models; Hum, for example, costs $14.99 (£9.70) per month, with the user obligated to a two-year contract (the hardware is included free of charge). Vinli’s adapter is currently in pre-order, in which it can be purchased in advance for $149. For data, users pre-pay blocks of it, with 500 MB going for $5.99, $15 for 1GB, and $40 for 3GB. Zubie runs on a slightly different business model – it offers its adapter (which it calls a “key”) and app, plus one year of cellular service, as a bundle for $99.95.

These are but three of a host of such adapters. So given that we’re at an early stage with these products, plus the fact that many of their functionalities are similar, it’s anyone’s guess which one, or ones, will emerge as the market leader(s).

Although they aren’t really competitive with the built-in hardware and rich feature sets of leading-edge connected cars, they do significantly enhance the driver experience in older vehicles. As such, the best ones should sell briskly on the market and give their owners much greater control, and knowledge, of their four-wheeled friends.


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