Aug/Sept 2013

The possibilities for M2M communications seem virtually limitless. But one of the areas where M2M holds potential for the most transformative change is the automotive industry. The ability to share realtime information with a vehicle opens the door for a broad range of new and exciting applications that will make driving safer, more convenient, and more efficient.

Automotive manufacturers, OEMs (original-equipment manufacturers), governments, and private vehicle fleet operators are already capitalizing on this potential, and building firstgeneration M2M solutions. But these applications are just scratching the surface. What will happen when M2M in automotive takes the next step—when every vehicle on the road is connected, and vehicles can share more data than they do today? Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities.

Building on eCall
The biggest push for automotive M2M today is coming from European governments, which are in the process of finalizing the regulatory mandate for the eCall system. eCall will require any new vehicle sold in the European Union be equipped with an emergency call capability, which will automatically notify local emergency responders in the event of an accident. Similar legislation has already passed in Russia, and all new cars sold there must have cellular emergency call capabilities by January 2015.

These M2M call systems offer immediate benefits, and are projected to cut emergency response times in half, reduce auto accident fatalities, and save billions of euros annually. But they also provide a compelling reason for auto manufacturers and OEMs to look seriously at in-vehicle connectivity. After all, if millions of cars on the road will now be connected for eCall, it’s only natural to imagine other kinds of remote and in-vehicle services that could take advantage of that same cellular connection.

For example, a car rental company could use the eCall device as a platform to support its own customer tracking and billing application. An enterprise operating a fleet of vehicles could deploy an “eco-driving” application, and monitor gas consumption and driver behavior to improve fuel efficiency.

These are real near-term possibilities, provided auto manufacturers and suppliers are thinking beyond merely eCall, and building cellular solutions flexible enough to support multiple services.

Broadband on the Road
The rise of cellular broadband, and LTE in particular, unlocks other new possibilities. The most obvious is in-car “infotainment” services, such as streaming video and music, and videoconferencing; basically anything you can do today with a broadband-connected computer or mobile device. But the greatest potential for LTE in connected vehicles is not simply as a fat pipe for video streaming, but as a fat pipe for “Big Data”—capturing realtime data from virtually every system in the vehicle at all times—and the new automotive applications that can capitalize on it.

Enterprises worldwide are already using cellular communication for vehicle monitoring. For example, M2M-based fleet management systems let enterprises track vehicles and logistics to improve efficiency and reduce fuel costs. Insurers are now exploring UBI (usage-based insurance) models, where insurance rates are based on a customer’s real driving patterns, as tracked by an M2M device.

But all of these services are custom-built systems, designed to collect specific pieces of information—GPS location, fuel efficiency, time and location, etc.—and use that for a narrow application. An LTE connection allows you to collect everything happening with the vehicle. With LTE providing the necessary bandwidth, every single control unit—temperature, brakes, safety systems, fuel systems, etc.—can send data to the cloud at all times.

What can you do with all that data, especially when you can collect it for every single vehicle on the road, in realtime? We can only imagine. And that’s the point: LTE unlocks the possibility for all sorts of innovative cloud applications that use realtime data to improve road conditions, reduce congestion, shorten travel times, reduce carbon emissions, and much more.

Car-to-Car Networks and More
One fascinating aspect of LTE that we are just beginning to contemplate is its support (at least in future versions of the standard) for ad-hoc communication between LTE endpoints, even when no LTE network is available. In practice, this could mean the ability for vehicles to communicate realtime road conditions, sudden weather changes, requests for assistance, and other information directly to other vehicles on the road—on any road, even one with no cellular coverage.

Another exciting avenue for automotive M2M is the ability to pair GPS navigation and online services for new applications. For example, if your vehicle’s navigation system knows where you’re going, why not have your car automatically reserve a parking spot for you? It’s tantalizing to imagine a future where the notion of driving around a busy city searching for a parking spot is a quaint anachronism. But it’s very much a real possibility.

This capability is even more powerful when considering electric vehicles. After all, charging a vehicle takes much longer than filling the tank with gas. If there’s a line at the gas station, you may wait a couple of minutes. If all the charging stations at your destination are taken, you may have to wait a half hour or longer.

This is not just an inconvenience, it’s a serious limitation that would restrict where people could drive in electric vehicles, and likely prevent them from buying one in the first place. In many ways, you simply can’t have large-scale adoption of electric vehicles without cloud M2M services from the car.

These same types of realtime location-based applications could also transform the way governments assess tolls and taxes in the future. Who needs a toll booth when you can automatically detect and bill drivers using a toll bridge or toll road? Municipalities seeking to reduce rush-hour traffic in busy areas could take a similar approach, for example, assessing a toll for driving in that part of town during rush hour, and collecting that toll automatically.

Overcoming the Barriers
If all of this sounds exciting, that’s because it is! But we still need to take some important steps to make these next-generation applications a reality.

Many of these applications can only work—or can only reach their full potential—when every vehicle, or at least the vast majority of vehicles on the road, is connected. And for realtime “Big Data” applications to work, they’ll need to be connected with LTE. So what needs to happen to make that a reality?

First, the costs of M2M technologies and cellular air time must continue to decline. M2M technology is not about adding a modem to a device, it’s about a connected device (including the modem, microprocessor, and embedded application) interacting with the cloud. All of those hardware, software, and cloud elements must become much less expensive to develop, integrate, and deploy than they are today. M2M technology must also become more flexible and upgradable over-theair to assure security and keep pace with innovation. Finally, these applications will require M2M technologies designed specifically for automotive, which can withstand the uniquely demanding conditions of operating under the hood in a vehicle, and can continue to function in the field for many years.

Automotive M2M solutions are already emerging that address all of these requirements. New multicore modules provide multiple M2M system components in a pre-integrated architecture, allowing for smaller device footprints, more closed and secure systems, and lower materials and development costs. Embedded application frameworks make it possible to host more demanding applications on a cellular module, and accelerate and standardize the development of new M2M solutions. Also, advanced M2M cloud management platforms make it possible to easily deploy, manage, and upgrade millions of devices in the field.

Automotive-specific M2M technologies are also coming of age. Cellular providers like Sierra Wireless are already working closely with automotive manufacturers and their tier-one suppliers to develop solutions that meet the unique demands of in-vehicle cellular solutions.

Some of the applications imagined here remain a long way off. But we can already see the future on the horizon, and we’re racing toward it every day.

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