Biz Technology on a Roll: The rise of in-car technology

Joe Santowski gets behind the wheel and begins to channel Peyton Manning. With a system that can provide five-day weather forecasts and track storms (including hurricanes menacing the East Coast), it’s a computerized feminine voice that captures his attention.

“Navigation,” commands Santowski, a sales and leasing consultant with Zimbrick European. “Enter destination.”

Voice: Your pre-selected state is Wisconsin. Do you want to enter town first, or street first?
Santowski: Street first.
Voice: Please say Wisconsin street name.
Santowski: Charmany Way.
Voice: Do you want to enter a house number?
Santowski: Yes.
Voice: Please state the house number.
Santowski: 6996.
Voice: House number 6996 accepted. Do you want to start route guidance?
Santowski: Yes.
Voice: Starting route guidance. Your route is being calculated. Please proceed along the route.

All of this transpires without Santowski taking an eye off the road or a hand off the wheel. Navigational voice commands are only the beginning of what businesspeople soon will be able to do in a wider variety of vehicles. The placement of Wi-Fi hotspots already is enabling passengers to fire up computing devices – smart phones, laptops, and tablets – and work in an uninterrupted fashion.

About the only thing putting the brakes on this rolling office trend is the manufacturers’ sensitivity to distracted driving, hence the emphasis on hands-free capabilities for drivers and wireless access for passengers. 

Everything else seems to be an enabler. The convergence of cloud computing, along with exponential increases in processing power, bandwidth, and storage, is accelerating the change that enables leaps in business technology.

Thanks to companies like Cisco, high-definition-quality visual communications such as video conferencing now are available on multiple devices, including smart phones, enabling managers in mid- to large-size companies to communicate face-to-face by long distance with the people they manage in distant offices, and to save on transportation costs. 

In the near future, wireless dead zones could be a thing of the past. In Waukesha, AT&T is testing technology that uses small antennas mounted on lampposts, utility poles, and buildings to fill gaps in wireless coverage. Older versions of this small cell technology have been effective where cell towers either are not practical or offer poor coverage, and AT&T plans to install more than 40,000 small cell transmitters within the next two years.

Providing a glimpse of what soon could be available in every model of car, Green Cab of Madison has partnered with the WiRover (wireless rover) group from UW-Madison to put Wi-Fi in its taxis, all of which are Toyota Prius hybrids. 

WiRover is a computer system that picks up the strongest cellular signal to deliver high-speed Internet access to moving vehicles, using multiple wireless carriers to guarantee an Internet connection along a route. “They are using multiple carriers to make sure there is always Internet access,” explained Amanda Schmidt Casto of Green Cab of Madison. “So if one provider is down, WiRover will pick up the next available signal. Currently, we are in the research phase, but we would like to be able to have Wi-Fi in all our taxis.” 

Following are some additional in-car technology breakthroughs that you might have missed.

Around the Benz

With in-car technology, it’s not that manufacturers expect businesspeople to spend most of their productive day in a car – although many a salesperson could come close. The new technology is more of a convenience when they occupy the car. 

At the moment, wireless capabilities tend to be offered as an option in the luxury or sedan models, but there is no reason a wireless hot spot can’t be installed in any vehicle. There are different ways to do it, but Mercedes-Benz uses the Verizon network to provide wireless capabilities in the car, and Bluetooth wireless technology for cell phones is standard issue. There is a monthly subscription, with charges based on the number of minutes used.

Santowski has seen interest from executives, salespeople, and anyone else who could use a computer and telecommunications on the move, but the emphasis for drivers is a wireless, mostly hands-free capability. “Some of it is just pushing a button to see your stereo, and when the phone rings, you push the button to pick up the call and start talking to the person on the other end,” Santowski explained. “You can hear them, and they can hear you, and when you’re done you push the button next to it, ending the call, and your radio comes back on.”

That same technology, depending on other options in the car, allows you to make phone calls using your voice. Drivers simply push a control button and say “telephone,” then state the phone number or the name of the person they want to call (if that person’s name and phone number are in the phone directory of their cell phone). The salesman will do the initial synchronizing of smart phone and in-car system, and Bluetooth will re-synchronize every time you get in the car.

In-car technology now has the ability to show you a text message that you’ve received, and show it on the main screen of the car’s panel. For safety reasons, drivers cannot text back, but at least they can see their text messages. “We don’t have this capability for email yet, but I’m sure that’s close to being very practical,” Santowski said. 

In addition, automakers constantly upgrade the applications available in the car, and each package contains a variety of other apps. As the new and existing apps are improved, the upgraded versions are automatically downloaded into your car’s system at no charge.

The package includes subscriptions to satellite radio, with its news, sports, weather, and entertainment. For a few extra dollars per month, you can add a separate weather channel that reports current-day and five-day forecasts and includes a zoom-in/zoom-out map of North America that shows all the storm fronts so that drivers can see what they are heading into. “You can also program different cities around the country, so if you’re in Madison and you’re on your way to New York for a business meeting, you can push a button and it will tell you what the next five days’ weather forecast will be for New York,” Santowski said.

There are even concierge services that enable drivers, in hands-free consultation with Mercedes-Benz employees, to make dinner or theater reservations, send flowers, and “basically take care of it for you as though it was your own personal concierge,” Santowski said. There is a flat annual charge for most of the services, and an additional monthly fee for concierge.

In Mercedes-Benz vehicles, the wireless hot spot device is wired, ironically, into the electrical system and mounted in the trunk so that it’s out of the way, and it’s encrypted so others aren’t using your wireless connections while you are in traffic.

If you’re traveling with staff members and want to keep them busy, the wireless capability enables passengers to keep up on all the business news with their tablets. Just as monitors placed in the back of a headrest allow children to watch videos in the backseat, there are special clips for the back of the headrest on which tablets can be mounted and used.

Whether this is the wave of the future in corporate group travel is anyone’s guess, but Mercedes-Benz accommodates such travel in a vehicle called the Sprinter Van, which can be customized into high-end traveling offices. “You can turn it into a meeting room, and then the sky is the limit as far as what you put in that vehicle,” Santowski said. “You can put almost anything that you can think of putting into your own office, and put it into a Sprinter Van, and have a mobile office with all of the functionality of your regular office.”

 

According to Santowski, up to 10 telephones can be connected and synchronized. “Let’s say you had three different cell phones. You list them right here, 1, 2, 3, and you click on the one that you want to be active at any one time, and that’s the one that will be tied in with the wireless Bluetooth. Typically, it will be the person driving because you don’t want them reaching for their phone. You want that to be hands-free. The other people in the vehicle can use their phones as they normally would, so you can connect numerous phones and they don’t interfere with each other.”

Mercedes-Benz and other automakers are somewhat cautious about putting electronic technology in cars. They only do it if there is a certain level of safety involved, and if the technology is up to par. Santowski explained that when Bluetooth phones first came out, Mercedes-Benz didn’t offer them for a couple of years because the sound quality was terrible. 

Smarter Motors

Toyota cars have integrated multimedia features through which executives can use a search engine, not for Web surfing or email, but for 5 million points of interest, and for weather, traffic, and stock information. These features were incorporated in earnest last year in the Prius v and are now available in the base models of each vehicle, including the Corolla. 

There is one make, the Avalon sedan, that will feature wireless Internet, and Toyota is betting that it will be popular with businesspeople. It is the first model to have what Toyota calls an ebin, a storage tray for the wireless charging of cell phones. The ebin was designed by a Toyota subsidiary, the Denso Corp., which is also working to incorporate wireless LAN into cars. 

“In that way, you can expand the Internet connectivity to things that go beyond email and texting to do things like vehicle-to-vehicle communication,” explained John Dolan, a hybrid car specialist for Smart Motors Toyota of Madison. “A driver is going to be able to ask the system to read the news to them from a newspaper, so that’s all hands-free. They will read any news or emails that they have and even display a daily calendar, so that is coming up in the near future.”

Due to the distracted-driver issue, in-car mobile office capability is something Toyota has been deliberate in developing. “When the car is moving, a lot of these features are only available through voice recognition, which is only controllable by the driver behind the steering wheel; it would distinguish between the passengers and the driver because they figured people would just take advantage of that,” Dolan explained. “They have been extremely conscious of distracted driving. All this multimedia stuff is making for more distractions for the driver, so they are trying to limit those distractions as best they can.”

Meanwhile, voice-command apps can be used for everything from making restaurant reservations, to searching for the nearest gas station with the most affordable price, to finding stock quotes. Toyota wants to partner with Microsoft and Apple to make it possible for Wi-Fi to integrate voice commands or other technology for email, calendaring, and the like. Apple iScreen, for example, offers voice-recognition software for cars, and down the road there might even be some sort of hand-gesture control.

In addition, Dolan said there are discussions about using Bluetooth for things ancillary to the cell phone, such as picking up signals for tire pressure monitoring.

Whatever the advance, consumers should be looking for gradual upgrades with each new model season, and for wireless technology to find its way to more makes and models. “They kind
of trickle this stuff out,” Dolan noted.

“If you get a car to be too electronically integrated, it can be a distraction. The hands-free is a great safety feature, and more and more states are making it illegal to actually hold and handle a phone while driving, which is a good thing.”

One killer device? 

Given the nonstop technological march, where computing power doubles every 18 months, according to Moore’s Law, are we getting to the point where a businessman or woman will be able
to run a start-up company on one computing device, perhaps a smart phone?

Todd Streicher, president and CEO of 5Nines, LLC, and Jeff Olson, U.S. Cellular’s B-2-B sales manager for Wisconsin, are open to the possibility, but note there might always be limitations, especially for publishing businesses.

With the advent of foldable screens, Streicher thinks a combination of the iPad and smart phone could work, but one device at this point can’t serve all needs. Streicher said a number of accessories are coming online that enhance the functionality of various devices. For example, as voice recognition improves over time, it could reduce the need for keyboarding, because people already are dictating emails, text, and text messages.

“With the publishing aspects, we’re not quite there yet with the user interface,” he said. “At some point, there will be a change where we don’t have or use keyboards the same way, but it’s not clear what that’s going to be. A lot of people are investing on the voice side, but you still need to be able to drive the application and drive the device.”

Olson adds 4G wireless to the list of new technology enablers. Not only are 4G network speeds up to 10 times faster for remote workers and other smart phone users, but the technology helps wireless carriers offload traffic on the networks, and less congestion provides a better end-user experience.

4G might be a win-win, but the jury is still out on products that could serve as an all-in-one device. In Olson’s view, the lead contender out of the gate is the Samsung Gallery Note, which has a feature that enables people to take notes with signature capture. “We kind of affectionately call it the ‘phablet’ because it’s a smart phone and a tablet combined into one,” he said. “It’s a little bit larger than the average smart phone and it’s smaller than your average 10-inch tablet, but still the size is such that you can carry it around as your single device for your voice needs as well.”

Given how much data the average person now uses, especially compared to just three years ago, Olson fully expects computing power to keep right on accelerating. “I believe so, and the reason I believe that is because people are expecting more and more out of their devices,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for us to continue to stay ahead of technology and to expand and improve our networks to ensure that customers have that pipeline.”

 

Counting on a Higher Pitch

We all have our favorite business apps, and they become sort of personal when they help us do our jobs better and more productively. For that, we salute the technology vendors who design and develop them, but who says they have to corner the market on app creation?

The app craze is being fueled in part by organizations like Count Me In, which has developed a new mobile tool that helps small business owners perfect their two-minute business pitch. Count Me In, a nonprofit resource for women entrepreneurs, partnered with Sam’s Club, which provided a grant to help develop Perfect Pitch and needed a technology partner to code it. It’s the latest example of how apps are no longer exclusively developed by the technology sector.

Call Perfect Pitch a niche app if you want, but when an organization is devoted to increasing the number of women-owned companies that report $1 million in annual revenue, that niche comes under the category of economic development. The app gives small business owners helpful tips, practice tools, and the ability to compile notes and reminders to track their progress in pitching their business toward growth, whether it’s a formal presentation to angel capital groups, an informal chat with a curious investor, or an interview with a newspaper reporter.

Heather Mangrum, chief marketing officer for Count Me In, said the business value of this skill cannot be underestimated. “Giving a really strong, effective two-minute pitch is something that wherever we go, whether it’s Madison or Los Angeles or anywhere else around the country, it’s a very powerful thing and a very powerful experience for people to really understand what works and what doesn’t, and how something that sounds as simple as talking about your business can really affect your ability to do business.”

While Count Me In has focused mainly on media outreach to promote Perfect Pitch, and the app is designed only for IOS and Android devices, the iPad is being targeted as well. Who knows? Perhaps greater exposure on the tablet is just the thing Count Me In needs to drive revenue growth in women-owned businesses. Of the people who have gone through its program, 32% have hit the $1 million mark in annual revenue. Nationally, only 1.8% of female business owners have reached the $1 million plateau.

“We’re still working on it,” Mangrum said. “We’re developing different ideas and ways to engage people, and the work doesn’t stop until we get all women on board with the idea of not just being in business, but really thriving.”

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