The Car Phone Was Just the Beginning

May 30, 2014 3:05 PM ET

The Car Phone Was Just the Beginning

By Susan Diegelman, Director of Public Affairs, AT&T

For over sixty years, engineers and automakers have been working on new and innovative ways to integrate communications technology into automobiles. Since the introduction of Bell System’s car phone in 1946, innovators have continued to pursue technological advancement in vehicles. Way back when, it began as a way to connect people to one another, but today we are connecting people to their cars, and soon we’ll be connecting cars to other cars as well as those cars to their surroundings.

In the mid-90’s, General Motors’ OnStar initiative was the first glimpse into what is now referred to as a “connected car.” At last week’s Information Technology Industry Council event, General Motors’ Harry Lightsey put it accurately when he said, “we’re at the beginning of the beginning in the automobile industry.” From declines in car accidents and a reduction in carbon emissions, to traffic avoidance and shorter commute times, the societal benefits of connected cars spread far and wide.

According to Mr. Lightsey, the foundation of connected car technology is grounded in consumer demand; companies must consider what type of information technology is going to be valuable to consumers. Connected car technology will enable drivers to access real time traffic updates to avoid congestion and will inform them when their car needs to be serviced. What happens next is a ripple effect of unintended benefits. Less time spent in traffic means less idling and therefore fewer CO₂ emissions. Likewise, a warning to service your vehicle could prevent engine damage or a potential accident down the road. Now, consider these benefits across a fleet of corporate vehicles. That is the true potential benefit of the connected car for our environment.  

For electric vehicles like Chevrolet’s Volt, engineers are looking at ways to charge the vehicle only at night, as off-peak usage is much more efficient for power grids, and the electricity itself is cheaper. Cars like the Volt and other hybrids store tremendous amounts of energy, and finding a way to repurpose that stored energy when there is a need for it would also take some of the load off our power grids. Similarly, harvesting excess energy through temperature differentials that can be sold back to power grids or can be used to charge an electric vehicle, all of which is done through the power of connectivity.

Another result of connectivity is more efficient fuel use. GPS technology will provide the driver with the location of hydrogen gas stations and charging stations. Knowing these locations ahead of time will allow for better traffic management, which will subsequently lead to lower emissions. Not only that, but companies like AT&T are looking into connecting those charging stations to a mobile wallet. According to AT&T’s Jason Harrison, in the not-so-distant future your car could pay for gas and parking via mobile wallet, saving consumers time and money.

While there is still much to be learned, the connected car is seemingly in arm’s reach. As things like battery technology get better and second and third generation electric vehicles emerge, there will likely be more acceptance in the marketplace. The improvements and advancements in connected vehicle technology will be small and incremental, but they will lead to layers upon layers of unintended benefits for consumers, society and the environment as a whole.