Research company Visiongain estimates the connected car market to be at nearly $22 billion in 2013, and ABI Research says that by 2017, nearly 50 million connected vehicles will be sold annually. “Some of the technologies featured in connected vehicles provide consumer-oriented infotainment functions, such as being able to stream Internet radio,” says Broc Jenkins, business development manager for M2M at Wilson Electronics. “Video can also be streamed to onboard television screens. Other technologies important to the connected vehicle are GPS location and tracking, location-based services, vehicle status and performance monitoring, and remote start.”

For field service companies and fleet operators, new vehicle connectivity features could provide a number of benefits. Built-in telematics solutions can provide location data and navigation, as well as vehicle diagnostics and data on driver behaviors. Onboard Internet connectivity would also provide greater options when it came to using devices like mobile computers and printers inside the vehicle. These vehicles would also have built-in wireless capabilities. “By my definition, [connected vehicle technology] can range from something quite simplistic — for example, a GPS receiver, a cellular radio, and a tracking application — to something much more complex, where all the components of the vehicle are connected via an onboard LAN that can be accessed via a range of different communication technologies (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular, NFC, satellite) which feed an endless number of applications,” says Andy Willett, senior VP at NetMotion Wireless.

Total Visibility — for Fleet Operators and Service Techs

In the enterprise, connected vehicle technology is being deployed for fleet management, passenger transportation, and public safety/ law enforcement scenarios for navigation, remote monitoring and control, and location-based service applications. “It appeals to companies that are interested in connecting their field employees to customer record management, and/or service/maintenance or installation management services,” says Bob Ralston, CEO and founder of Feeney Wireless. “They use it for asset tracking, mapping, Wi-Fi services for clients to access the Internet, and credit card processing for paying fares.”

Connectivity in a fleet environment would provide complete visibility for fleet operators, which could help improve operations, open up new data mining opportunities, potentially lower insurance rates, provide enhanced asset tracking capabilities, and onboard navigation. “These solutions can reduce operating costs through the efficiencies gained in driver behavior and route optimization,” Ralston says. “They also benefit from enhanced driver safety and communications, security, inventory control, and in-field payment processing.”

Wireless Internet access would provide location-based services that could let drivers know when weather, heavy traffic, or an accident might affect their route so vehicles could be rerouted on the fly. “There are increased efficiencies for the workforce themselves, improved service for the organization’s customers, better safety, and the ability to reduce maintenance costs and extend the life of their capital investments,” Willett says.

A network-enabled vehicle, combined with cloud computing, could also provide access to a variety of business applications and data services from the vehicle. Such a system could even provide more flexibility when it came to the mobile devices being used to access those applications, with the vehicle itself serving as a central communications hub.

Standalone vs Embedded Devices

There are two basic approaches to vehicle connectivity: using a mobile device as the central hub or having embedded communications in the vehicle. There are pros and cons to each approach. The choice between embedded or tethered also affects aftermarket component suppliers. Some components, accessories, and applications might revolve around use of the device, while others might be more integrated along with the embedded modem.

According to Willett, users have the option to go with an intelligent communications hub on board the vehicle, with a number of relatively “dumb” peripherals, or a hub that functions as a router for intelligent devices. Users may also rely on a device to act as that hub or use a separate device built into the vehicle. “The trade-off is largely a deeper integration with the vehicle, along with higher cost and less flexibility as technology changes, versus less integration, lower cost, and more flexibility,” Willett says.

Vehicles with an embedded system have the advantage of providing a more hands-free option for drivers, as well as being fully integrated into the other vehicle systems. “Some of the cons to the embedded approach include the fact that a consumer may or may not be able to select the cellular provider of choice,” Jenkins says. “Companies or drivers would likely have to purchase an additional line of service for the modem in the car. One other consideration is the fact that cellular technology changes rapidly and could be out-of-date in a very short time.”

A device-centric approach would allow vehicle owners to select their own wireless network and change service providers at their discretion without affecting compatibility. “They are already paying for a data connection and plan on their phone, and this method would reduce the need for an additional data line/fee,” Jenkins says. “However, the driver or company would likely have to pay for the data charges brought on by software updates that an automotive OEM may make to their vehicles. With the widespread use of mobile data and the somewhat limited data plans, this could be a concern for a company.”

Connected vehicles also face the same connectivity challenges as any other wireless device: While on the move, they will travel in and out of wireless coverage. An application would need to provide some sort of offline functionality for a reliable deployment in the enterprise.

As connected vehicle technology evolves, there will be even more opportunities for companies. Location-based information could be used to alert field service representatives when they were near existing customers or new prospects. Real-time alerts could help drivers avoid hazardous road conditions and heavy traffic. The vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems could improve safety and efficiency even more. The vehicle serving as an information hub could also help smooth the integration of disparate fleet management, field service management, dispatch, scheduling, and maintenance systems.

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This article was previously published on Field Technologies Online, and is reposted here with permission.

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