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Wi-Fi over four-wheel drive? Carmakers are shifting focus

Autos with business needs in mind are latest trend

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    The inside of the Nissan connect is built with the needs of a business person in mind.
    The inside of the Nissan connect is built with the needs of a business person in mind. - (FILE PHOTO)

    Imagine getting ahead on research for work during your commute while Pandora plays your favorite radio station and Twitter reads aloud your daily tweets.

    Or napping behind the wheel as your car drives you to work entirely.

    OK — the latter is still being tested — but now that total connectivity has become a necessity for car consumers, that day is not far off.

    It's all part of the business car of the future, a market car manufacturers are starting to address.

    Robyn Williams, the senior marketing manager for vehicle connected services at Nissan North America, said the company understands why work-oriented drivers multitask and is working to meet that need.

    “Nissan continues to develop connected services with business use in mind,” she said in an email. “For example, our telematics suite is designed to allow customers to integrate their work calendar into their system and navigation screen. For a sales person or real estate agent, client appointments are available at the touch of a button, including integrated navigation guiding them directly to the meeting address.”

    Wolfgang Ziebart, the engineering director at the Jaguar-Land Rover Group, said the company's InControl apps — which will be made available in the 2015 Range Rover Evoque — also will provide today's drivers with peace of mind if they leave their work phone at home.

    “The Range Rover Evoque's central touch screen is now an extension of an owner's iPhone or Android smartphone with the latest content always available,” Ziebart said.

    Even so, it appears car companies can't do enough soon enough.

    According to a study by IHS Automotive, 23 million cars were connected to the Internet in 2013. That number is expected to reach 152 million in 2020.

    The big tech players — Apple, Microsoft and Google — all have rushed to partner with car companies to prepare new dashboard-compatible operating systems.

    Data carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have added vehicular Wi-Fi capabilities to comprehensive contracts.

    And Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn boldly announced Nissan's commitment to have autonomous vehicles in showrooms by 2020.

    Car companies recognize a rise in interest for more technology as the integration of multiple mobile devices has seemingly become more important to car buyers than horsepower or brand history. But they also recognize a smart car is no good if it's not safe.

    Frank Weith, general manager of Connected Services at Volkswagen, likes to remind drivers that while they can replace their smartphone for a few hundred bucks, they will not be able to replace their car, or worse — their lives — in the event of distracted driving.

    “The last thing we want is customers changing their Facebook status or creating playlists while driving,” Weith said. “There is immense market pressure to integrate content from smartphone devices into cars. And while we have created a simple interface to safely access music apps and answer urgent hands-free calls, our focus is on making the driving experience safer and more efficient. The real value in driving is and always will be to get from one place to another.”

    New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co., the state's largest auto insurer, agrees. It appreciates the support from car companies in being dedicated to improving driver, passenger and pedestrian safety — but understands the benefits modern technology can bring.

    “As a safety-focused institution, NJM is greatly concerned with distracted driving and the potential negative consequences of any technology that pulls the driver's attention away from the road,” NJM spokesman Eric Stenson said. “However, there are benefits to using these technologies, such as automatic crash notifications and programs that prevent cell phones from being used by the driver while the car is in motion.”

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests car manufacturers keep the following guidelines in mind when designing integrated vehicle apps: drivers should be able to complete any task within two seconds; distractions should not exceed that associated with manually switching radio stations; and the driver, not the app or device, should control the pace of task interactions.

    Andrew Lipman, general manager of communications at Audi, suggests that its so-called Audi connect technology actually combats distracted driving by reducing the need for motorists to handle their mobile devices to access smartphone-based features.

    “It is our firm belief that motorists should have tools that maximize the information they need to efficiently accomplish their primary task of driving behind the wheel,” Lipman said. “That's why Audi painstakingly ensures all information provided to drivers is clear, consistent in font choice and colors, and intuitive to access.”

    Earlier this year, Audi announced its partnership with AT&T to offer U.S. Audi drivers the first-ever in-vehicle 4G LTE data connection, which will be incorporated into the 2015 A3 family.

    Audi's desire to achieve faster downloads for higher-definition video streaming and personalized RSS news feeds seems to strongly contradict the company's previous statement.

    However, Audi maintains that the new Wi-Fi hotspot technology is to be used primarily by other passengers inside the vehicle, noting that the Smart Display infotainment system can even be removed to function as an independent tablet.

    “Audi disables text-heavy services, such as RSS feeds, as the car is in motion, and offers multiple ways for drivers to input voice commands synced with the robust Google Local Voice service,” Lipman said.

    NJM's Stenson says so far, so good.

    “NJM has not seen an increasing frequency of accidents for vehicles with this technology,” he said. “However, if the loss experience worsens for vehicles with such equipment compared to those without, it could potentially impact insurance rates.”

    The good news is that all this integrated technology is leading somewhere great: complete autonomous driving.

    “Autonomous driving will certainly provide safety benefits,” Weith added. “There will be a slow transition — vehicle-to-vehicle communication needs to improve — but the infrastructure is quickly evolving.”

    So much so that you may soon be able to squeeze in a nap behind the wheel, after all.

    E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
    On Twitter: @megfry3

    Safety first
    Volkswagen has long been recognized as a safety-conscious brand that helps customers feel protected and secure. Beginning in the 2014 model year, Volkswagen continued this trend with the introduction of VW Car-Net, a multifaceted connectivity system accessible by buttons on the overhead console, online or through its mobile app.

    For instance, if a disabled car must be left behind or is suddenly stolen, the driver can access roadside or stolen vehicle assistance via the mobile app to let VW Car-Net specialists know to locate their car. This app is also incredibly useful for remembering where drivers last parked their cars.

    VW Car-Net is also helping working parents keep a watchful — but not invasive — eye on their children. For example, parents can check to see if their teenage drivers remembered to turn the headlights off with the Remote Vehicle Status feature or can be notified by Family Guardian if their child speeds or leaves pre-approved “green” locations. The car can even send monthly diagnostics reports to preferred dealers and alert authorities if the vehicle gets into an accident.

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    Meg Fry

    Meg Fry

    Meg Fry covers manufacturing and retail. Meg joins NJBIZ with past production experience in the arts, film and television. She continues to write and market her own spec scripts and screenplays. You can contact her at megf@njbiz.com or @MegFry3 on Twitter.

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