A lot of small business owners spend more time in their cars than they do in their beds. Good news: Cars are about to get a lot smarter, making time spent in your vehicle much more productive. Bad news: You may spend even more time in your car -- but maybe you won't mind.
Soon, your automobile may be your largest mobile productivity tool. Car manufacturers are making cars smarter and connecting them to the internet, enabling a new wave of mobile apps that could make your work life easier.
They won't replace your laptop, or even your cell phone. But smart, connected cars will let you or your passengers keep working, even on the road.
While today's in-car services focus on navigation, safety and security, the industry is moving to what it calls infotainment, that is, information and entertainment delivered to the car.
"Just about everybody has the Bluetooth interface, so if your smartphone has Bluetooth you can connect that to the car's system and get a hands-free interface," says Egil Juliussen, principal analyst and fellow automotive research for analyst firm iSuppli. While today, that means hands-free phone calls, tomorrow that could mean access to some or all of the applications running on your smartphone.
For example, how often do you get behind on your email? What if your car could read your emails to you while you're driving and turn your spoken replies into emailed replies? That's one of the features the industry is planning in the next couple of years.
Text-to-speech is available now in Ford Motor Co.'s MyFord Touch, which can also respond to voice command to change the temperature, play music and make outgoing phone calls.
Touch screens in cars keep getting bigger and brighter; they now rival the screen on a net book computer or iPad. Today, you can stream Internet radio into your car; soon, you'll be able to use the car's infotainment screen to display applications running on your smartphone. Instead of trying to read a document or update a spreadsheet on the phone's tiny screen, you could use your phone's keypad but see your entries on the car's larger display.
By the end of this year, wireless network operators will begin to roll out LTE, a new mobile broadband technology that could eventually turn your car into a WiFi hot spot. At the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota and Alcatel-Lucent showcased an LTE-connected concept car that enabled a complete internet experience. Eventually, they say, business users will be able to access all their business information and tools from in-car systems.
A Better Route
Even getting places will get easier, thanks to sophisticated navigation systems in the works. They'll connect to Internet servers that crunch real-time data from a variety of sources to show you the best route, taking into consideration traffic, accidents or hazards, and road conditions.
"I believe the car of the future will understand what the driver's intentions are," says Chuhee Lee, head of infotainment for Volkswagen's Electronics Research Laboratory. The car will already know that every morning at 8 a.m. you head to the office. It will check on traffic and push any relevant information to you, so you don't get stuck.
Driven to Distraction
Some of this sounds a little scary. Will the roads be even less safe when they're filled with multi-tasking businesspeople? Research shows that listening and responding to emails with your voice is every bit as impairing as driving drunk. But the auto industry is looking at ways to fix this, says Leo A. McCloskey, vice president of marketing and product management for Airbiquity, a provider of mobile software. For example, the car might switch off or limit the function of applications as soon as the car is taken out of park.
"If you have technology that reads email to you, perhaps one of the policy frameworks you put on is that, if you're going more than five miles an hour, it shuts down," he says. The car could also automatically answer texts with a message saying you'll respond later.
Someday, cars will be so smart, they'll drive themselves. You'll simply tell the navigation system your destination and, instead of responding to turn-by-turn navigation instructions, you'll be able to sit back and haul out your laptop while the nav system selects the best route and keeps you on it via GPS and road sensors.
"Say there's an accident, so there's stop and go traffic," says Volkswagen's Lee. "I can engage into low-speed, autonomous driving mode, so that the car follows slowly moving traffic on its own. Because you're not focused so much on the actual driving task, you can focus on your productivity side, for example, by hearing your email or calendar read aloud."
Then you would really be able to get a lot done while you're driving.
Image credit: The LTE Connected Car from Alcatel-Lucent's ng Program
Susan Kuchinskas is the author of Going Mobile: A Guide to Building the Real-Time Enterprise with Mobile Applications That Work. As a founding editor for M-Business from 200 to 2002, she tracked the early development of the mobile internet. She's a correspondent for Telematics Update and reports on technology and business for a variety of publications.