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January 1, 2012 1:00 AM

Clouds ahead: Systems give drivers access to media anywhere


This illustration, featuring the Ford Evos concept car, is the company's conceptualization of how cloud computing could work to send information — such as the current weather — from your home to your car. (Ford)

When it comes to the next generation of in-car infotainment, automakers have their heads in the cloud. Their goal is make it easy for drivers to seamlessly access movies, music, e-books, road directions and other content always available via the Internet from central servers — the so-called digital cloud — instead of storing it on board or having to bring it with them on a personal device, such as an MP3 player or smartphone.

Already, automakers provide a way for consumers to plug in those devices, but the cloud could eliminate the need for them. Ford and Mercedes-Benz have created concept cars that take the vehicle beyond just being an extension of drivers' personal electronic devices.

Cloud-based concepts
  • Ford Evos: The Evos is a fastback four-seater that is the model for Ford's future design language. Along with its infotainment system, its plug-in gas/electric powertrain will also be enhanced by cloud technology.
  • Mercedes-Benz F125: Mercedes' experimental hydrogen-fuel-cell sedan was built to be high-tech in every way, from its cloud-based telematics system to its 3D displays and gesture-controlled turn signals.

And consumers are starting to store media in the cloud through services such as those now offered by Amazon and iTunes. The media can then be accessed from the cloud anytime, anywhere on any Internet-connected device.

Automakers want to make the car one of those devices, and Ford showed off a concept, the Evos, in Los Angeles in November.

"The evolution of how you access ... the cloud is the next wave," says James Robbins, managing director of consultancy Accenture's North American auto practice. "All the content and data that you have ... will be all there at your fingertips."

Are the kids screaming about having to leave home in the middle of watching a movie they downloaded? With the movie in the cloud, they'll be able to pick up right where they left off in the back seat of the minivan.

Or if the driver is listening to an e-book at home, for instance, he can get in his car and pick up at the same spot.

Automakers are taking baby steps in current cars. Online music services such as Pandora allow people to create their own "stations" of favorite artists or genres from Pandora's trove of centrally stored tracks. They are being brought into cars through infotainment systems such as Toyota's Entune or Cadillac's new Cue.

"Cue integrates your connected life in the car," says Jeff Massimilla, the system's program manager.

Ford is looking down the road, envisioning a car that can first recognize who is driving in such high-tech ways as a code, fingerprint or iris scan, says spokesman Alan Hall.

Then the car's cloud-based automotive systems can become intuitive, knowing and applying that driver's preferences and travel patterns to provide customized information and entertainment. The car could, for instance, automatically tailor news about favorite sports teams or hobbies.

Ford also envisions a "cloud-optimized" powertrain that learns individuals' expected driving and commuting patterns, tracking where they live and work and places they frequent.

On weekday mornings, for example, the car, using data stored in the cloud, would adjust the engine to maximize gas savings. It would switch to a lower-horsepower mode around town and make full power available for highway or rural portions. It could also preheat or cool the car based on expected departure.

"The car starts to understand your preferences," says Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technical officer. "The car adapts to you, rather than you connecting to the car."

Mercedes, which showed off the technology in its F125 concept vehicle at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, says cloud-based technology will eliminate the need to synchronize smartphones or other personal electronics with the car's systems. The car won't need them anymore because it would draw all the information and media needed from the cloud.

"The car is the ultimate mobile device," Mascarenas says.