L.A. Auto Show: Connected Cars Will Rule in 2014, Audi Unveils Connected A3

Audi A3

Passengers in Audi's 2015 A3 can access streaming high-definition video on up to eight devices. "The connected car is a whole new environment," says an expert. "Your car is functioning like a giant, moving smart phone."

Hollywood's infatuation with flashy electric cars and, lately, armored SUVs, is surpassed only by its craving for vehicles that connect as seamlessly with the Internet as their smart phones and tablets. Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum went so far as to forsake his personal car for a chauffeur-driven delivery van -- the sides lettered BLUMHOUSE ELECTRIC -- with an interior tricked out into a communications center where Blum takes care of business on the fly (drive?).

But a future where cars are equipped with the same technology that powers our smart phones and, more importantly, can communicate with them without a hiccup is already at hand.   

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The 2013 L.A. Auto Show opened to the press Nov. 19 with a day of seminars that underscored the inevitability of the connected car -- as well as its necessity when selling to millennials, who have so far shown a chilling indifference toward traditional automobile marketing tropes such as horsepower and styling that has carmakers from Detroit to Stuttgart paying rapt attention. (In one survey, nine out of 10 young Germans said they could imagine life without a car but not without a smart phone.)

"The connected car is a whole new environment," said David Jumpa, chief revenue officer of Airbiquity, which provides technology to carmakers that manages the multiple streams of data flowing into -- and out of -- connected vehicles. "Your car is functioning like a giant moving smart phone."

At the convention, Audi took the wraps off its 2015 A3 sedan, which is purpose-built to offer an unprecedented level of connectivity using the 4G LTE standard, the same standard utilized on smart phones and other advanced wireless devices. 

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The carmaker said that the new technology will allow the A3 to handle more sophisticated navigation graphics, read Facebook and Twitter alerts aloud, access 7,000 web-based radio stations worldwide, and offer personalized RSS news feeds. The 4G LTE pipeline also allows faster downloads and high-definition video streaming for up to eight devices using the A3's in-vehicle WiFi hotspot. 

The robust broadband wireless connectivity anticipates a future where cars communicate with the evolving smart car infrastructure -- including parking garages, gas stations and eventually the cloud and other connected cars. 

The latter is seen as crucial to making self-driving cars -- which are already being tested on public roads in California by Google and in Germany by Mercedes -- a practical reality. "There is tremendous value in cars connecting with each other," said Ben Vos, of wireless provider Sprint's Emerging Solutions Group. "But it will only work if we connect 100 percent of the cars." 

Jeff Klei, president of Continental North America, the German company that is a leading supplier of the underlying technology used in self-driving cars, said that to be fully autonomous, a car "is going to need some information from the cloud" to supplement the onboard radars and 3D cameras that pilot today's driverless cars.

The consensus among experts at the auto show was that lightly automated cars, providing limited driverless functions, will be available by 2015, followed by highly automated cars by 2020 and fully autonomous cars by 2025. 

"This is fundamentally changing how we drive," said Sven Beiker, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research.