Your Car Is About to Get Smarter Than You Are

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Chrysler Group LLC / PR NewsWire / AP

The Internet is about to hit the open road. A new fleet of online-connected automobiles set to debut this summer are aiming to make using web services a more seamless part of the driving experience.These new vehicles will make it easier to listen to Internet radio, get social media updates and download car fixes. One day they’ll even drive themselves.

Cars from several automakers have had online connectivity for a few years now, typically achieved by syncing up a smartphone to a vehicle and using the phone’s data plan. But General Motors is going a step further with its 2015 Chevrolet models by installing 4G LTE technology in most of its vehicles through its OnStar navigation service. The cars will be able to connect to the Internet independently and utilize custom-made apps all on their own.

Internet-enabling technology is already available in pricey cars like the Tesla Model S, but now the functionality will be offered in more mainstream vehicles like the Chevrolet Silverado, the second best-selling automobile in the U.S. last year. Currently 23 million cars on the road globally are connected to the Internet in some capacity, according to research firm IHS Automotive. By 2020 that figure is expected to rise to 152 million.

“We don’t view this as a technology or capability only for people that are buying luxury cars,” says John McFarland, a marketing director for GM’s global customer connect strategy and infotainment division. “We look at this as an opportunity to maintain a relationship with our customers where they can continue to add content with applications and new capabilities.”

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Like smartphones, the Chevrolet vehicles will come preinstalled with a set of web apps, with the ability to install more in the future. The initial crop of programs include The Weather Channel, NPR and a car diagnostics tool called Vehicle Health. Web-enabled cars can also serve as hotspots and provide online access for smartphones and tablets within the vehicle. The cars’ data network will be provided by AT&T. Customers will have the choice of incorporating a car into their mobile data plan if they’re already on AT&T’s network or buying a new data plan just for their car. Users will still be able to piggyback off their smart phone’s data plan to achieve some of the web functionality in these new vehicles. Specific pricing for the AT&T plan will be revealed later this year.

GM is not the only company stepping up its online game. Audi plans to introduce 4G LTE connectivity in its A3 line this year, offering drivers the ability to check their Facebook and Twitter accounts and hear news headlines read aloud. Google just announced a partnership with Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai to to bring the Android operating system to cars soon. Apple is also prepping a new version of its iOS operating system that will bring the iPhone’s apps and features to compatible auto dashboards.

For all parties involved, there’s a lot at stake in the smartening up of the car. With smartphone penetration expected to soon reach a saturation point in developed markets, wireless carriers will be hungry for new ways to sell people pricey data plans. Consumer tech companies like Apple and Google, meanwhile, are always looking to infiltrate and disrupt new product lines. As for the car companies, connected cars offer a chance to give autos the same media hoopla and consumer passion that accompanies an iPhone launch. Silicon Valley darling Tesla is already benefiting from this phenomenon.

“They’re getting to a point where mechanical engineering excellence is being commoditized,” says Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst at Gartner. “Cars all drive well at this point. These in-vehicle technologies give car companies a way to differentiate their offerings but it also actually meets new needs that consumers have to extend the digital lifestyle inside the vehicle.”

Safety concerns abound with these new online vehicles. Some are convinced any technological advances that get drivers focused on something besides the road are bound to be dangerous distractions. “Anything that a driver does that takes attention from focusing on driving increases the risk of crashing,” says Jonathan Adkins, the deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national organization representing state highway safety offices. “Whether or not it’s hands-free…you’re still focusing your mind and your cognitive skills away from driving.”

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So far legislation against using in-car apps is minimal, though certain functions could eventually be outlawed, as texting while driving now is in most states. The National Traffic Highway Safety Administration has issued a set of guidelines that advise automakers not to release programs requiring drivers to glance away from the road for more than two consecutive seconds. Companies are now are trying to develop car-specific apps in the spirit of these guidelines. The aim is to deliver some of the functionality of smartphones in a way that allows drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

“We’re doing much more of a curated app environment,” McFarland says. “If there’s an application or a technology that makes it less safe, we will not put that in the vehicle.”

Though there are obvious dangers, smarter cars will also have ways to make us safer. Automakers will be able to issue downloadable updates that improve car functionality, as Tesla does regularly. More automation will become standard, leading eventually to self-driving cars. And people will spend less time fumbling with their smartphones once it’s no longer the primary way to pick a song or look up directions while in the car.

“In an ideal environment, you get in your car and the user experience is so inviting and so intuitive and easy to use that you put down that device because that’s more complex,” says Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive. “That’s what the automakers are trying to achieve.”