With U.S. commuters spending an estimated 500 million hours per week in their vehicles, carmakers, software companies and content providers are trying to figure out how to take advantage of new high-speed wireless network technologies to help drivers have better Internet access during this often idle time.

One idea is to turn the automobiles themselves into conduits for the Internet, giving drivers and passengers access to navigational help, streaming movies, video games and other online services via touch screens embedded into the dashboard and seats. The ng Connect Program (led by telecommunications provider Alcatel–Lucent) presented its vision of the so-called "connected car" on Tuesday in New York City—a white Toyota Prius hybrid tricked out with access to a 4G ("fourth generation") broadband wireless network.

Although Alcatel–Lucent's connected car is a prototype, it is designed with a wireless hot spot that links into the Internet via cell phone tower signals as it cruises along. The hot spot (much like those used in homes and coffee shops) can provide network access to the car's computer as well as any smart phones, laptops or other wireless devices in range.

Alcatel–Lucent and its partners gave the connected car network access using technology based on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile broadband access 4G specification. Although data-transfer rates are dependent on a number of factors (including network traffic) and speeds are often theoretical, a 4G network based on LTE can potentially download content at a peak rate of at least 100 megabits per second, far outperforming the fastest 3G download rates that promise up to 21 megabits per second. Such throughput is crucial to keeping in-car broadband networks from choking on large multimedia streams (movies or video games, for example) coming into the car.

Fourth-generation wireless
Alcatel–Lucent launched the ng Connect Program in February as a means of preparing the way for 4G LTE networks, which are being engineered specifically for data (as opposed to voice) communications, says Steve West, Alcatel's senior director of emerging technology and media. Ng Connect wants 4G to be successful out of the gates, unlike 2G and 3G, which languished initially until companies figured out how to leverage these increasingly powerful networks. An example of this would be the uptake of 3G once Apple introduced an iPhone capable of using the technology, he adds.

Instead of being a technology in search of a purpose, "we knew early on that LTE was about more than handsets," West says, which is why his company has grown the ng Connect Program to include 26 member companies, including Atlantic Records, Hewlett–Packard and Samsung Telecommunications America, LLC, to serve a variety of different industries, including health care, entertainment and marketing, in addition to automotive.

A lot of 4G's uses will depend on how creative software writers can be, says Andy Gryc, product marketing manager for QNX Software Systems, a member of the ng Connect Program and provider of the Prius's onboard operating system. For example, broadband wireless signals could be used to integrate information from sensors already in the car that measure oil pressure, tire pressure, temperature and other conditions. Carmakers might also be able to deliver new software and firmware to their cars wirelessly (without the need for service visits) much the same way computer makers use the Web to deliver antivirus software and operating system updates.

In addition to offering vehicles powered by a number of alternatives (fuel, battery or both), car companies are going to win customers in the future based on the networked services they offer drivers and passengers and how well these services are delivered, says Nancy Gioia, Ford Motor Co.'s director of Sustainable Mobility Technologies and Hybrid Vehicle Programs. Ford's SYNC in-car communications system offers several features that ng Connect is proposing for its version of the connected car, including vehicle health reporting and the ability to have text messages, news, weather and other personalized information read aloud to the driver. The data is sent via the driver's cell phone connection, which means it will be able to leverage 4G whenever the driver's cell phone provider upgrades to that generation, says Doug VanDagens, Ford's director of connected services.

Not so fast
Of course, there are still a number of items that need to be worked out to determine whether 4G networks keep their promises of being fast and reliable. This includes designing automobile antennas that can receive 4G signals and deliver unfettered access to the electromagnetic spectrum to broadcast these signals (currently being fought for by scientists, technology companies and government agencies).

The cost of all this technology is also an open question. Carmakers have to install antennas, flash memory, video screens, modems and other components to make the connected car a reality. There will not be a need for expensive hard drives or large storage devices, however, because most of the software and content will be delivered to the car via the wireless network and stored in back-end data centers, West points out. The cost of the content itself will likely be worked out between the companies providing the streaming video games, movies and other services, and the drivers themselves, independent of the carmakers.

Automakers also have to be mindful, however, of when in-car content can become too much of a distraction, an issue being studied by government that could eventually lead to laws against distracted driving. As the amount of information available to drivers increases, the driver's interface to that data will become crucial. A likely option, QNX's Gryc says, is to restrict nonessential services available to the driver while the car is in motion, and freeing them for use when the vehicle is parked.

There are still several years for technology companies and carmakers to hash out all of the finer details, because connected cars are not likely to hit the road en masse before 2012, and 4G networks will roll out incrementally between now and 2014, West says. What is important at this time is for groups like ng Connect and car companies to discuss where the technology is headed, he adds, so that they can make plans for future models.