Detroit Auto Show Spotlights Wearable Technology and Connected Cars

By: Sarah Schmid | Xconomy

The 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is wrapping up in Detroit this week, and this year’s edition marks the first time I’ve ever seen a smart bike on display at a car show—which, in a way, is a sign that the auto industry has bounced back and is seeking innovative ways to differentiate what it has to offer.

We’ve all been trained by our smartphones to expect to be tethered to the Internet at all times. That doesn’t change when we get into our vehicles. But with the emergence of wearable technology such as Google Glass and the Pebble Smartwatch, car companies face an interesting challenge: How do you incorporate wearable tech in vehicles without compromising safety?

Covisint, a Detroit-based big data company that was a division of Compuware before it split off in an IPO last fall, has been working with Hyundai to integrate Google Glass into theHyundai Genesis. Using Covisint’s platform, Genesis drivers would be able to access remote starting, fuel alerts, roadside assistance, and vehicle diagnostic information through their Glass.

“The way we see the world is, you don’t marry yourself to one device or platform,” says Timothy Evavold, director of automotive delivery for Covisint. “You want to allow all to be able to participate, and that integration is what we enable.”

If vehicles will be accessing multiple connection points from inside the vehicle, whether through smartphones or a modem in the head unit, the question becomes: What’s the business model when you’re an automobile manufacturer trying to manage all of those connection points? Covisint believes the answer might be a subscription service where the subscription is portable and can travel from vehicle to vehicle.

“To do that, you have to move a lot into the cloud,” Evavold explains. “We don’t see a vehicle-centric world, we see a consumer-centric world where vehicles are enablers of your Internet connection. Wouldn’t it be great if you drove to a hotel room and it already knew what TV channels you were interested in? That’s really what we’re going toward.”

Wearable technology will be key to another emerging trend in vehicles: the hands-free, immersive experience. Already, your phone and its apps are becoming accessible in the car through voice or touch. In a few years, Covisint believes, the car will also know where your Facebook friends are as you’re driving, and will be able to ask you if you’d like to stop off and meet up with them.

One potential wrinkle in this brave new world is that there are currently no national regulations that govern the use of cell phones in cars, let alone wearable technology that rests over the user’s eyes. The industry is attempting to regulate itself by working with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration to develop guidelines, but the rules still vary from city to city and state to state.

“It’s a big interoperability problem,” Evavold says. “There are different platforms and modalities and no regulation. The legislation is all over the map.”

Evavold proposes “geo-fencing” as one solution—using a vehicle’s GPS position to determine whether it’s safe to use wearable technology like Google Glass. If the car determined it was unsafe to drive down a busy urban street while peering at your wearable heads-up display, for instance, it could turn off the device’s mobile Internet connection (reconnecting in case of emergency).

Stefan Bankowski, a product development engineer with Ford’s App Link team, says Ford is “future-proofing” itself by designing its cars as if some kind of national regulations will be in place soon. “I’m not sure if Google Glass will ever be allowed in the vehicle,” he says. “The industry is looking at things like heads-up texting, where the texts pop up on the windshield. We’re exploring different interfaces.”

From Bankowski’s comments, it’s clear that car companies want to get in on “the Internet of things”—the buzzy term for a world where multiple devices are talking to each other. The phrase came up repeatedly among car companies I talked to at the auto show. Though Bankowski is an auto engineer, his hobby is hacking. He also owns a Pebble, which means even if the government decides against allowing wearable technology in cars, he’s still interested in that functionality as a consumer.

Bankowski has been working on a way to use his smart watch to access his car’s operating system so that he can set up alerts that vibrate on his wrist when he’s going too fast, or vibrate when he’s using navigation and he’s arrived at his destination. “Developing the software is actually kind of simple,” he says. “I’m excited that it’s finally being talked about [by the industry] now.”

One man betting that Google Glass will indeed be allowed in cars is Jake Steinerman, the Michigan-based founder of a startup called DriveSafe. He and his team have created an app for Google Glass users to help them drive more safely.

“Google Glass has a number of sensors, and one of them is infared,” Steinerman says. “We use that sensor to detect the number of blinks and tilt of the user’s head over time. At a certain point, if it thinks you’re falling asleep, it will set off an alert using the bone conduction speaker. You can say, ‘OK, Glass, find a rest area,’ and the GPS will tell you when the next rest area is coming up.”

At the moment, Google hasn’t established a protocol for how outside developers might submit Glass apps to its app store. Steinerman expects that to happen soon, though. In the meantime, his DriveSafe app is in beta testing and available for download at the company’s website.

“I think the intersection of cars and wearable devices is inevitable,” he adds. “We want to be at the forefront.”

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