The 4G Chevy Volt: How Apps Tie Into the Car Experience

Tech week in Chicago is a tradeshow and conference that few of us notice. The reason may be that it takes place in Chicago, which has always had trouble attracting a general tech crowd. Furthermore, the show’s organizers placed the event in an odd location (the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart rather than in the traditional McCormick Place Convention Center. The location was an indication that it would be a rather intimate gathering. Actually, there was very little to see with the exception of one particularly noteworthy exhibit that I almost missed when registering in the lobby of the Merchandise Mart.

In addition to offering the generic Chevrolet Volt for test drives, General Motors showcased the second generation of the "4G Volt" and demonstrated its features and the vision of how a connected mainstream car could be driven on our roads in the not-too-distant future with technology that is available today.

The Basics: LTE and Android

Using the Chevy Volt as a foundation, the concept of the 4G Volt is more common sense than rocket science. GM's OnStar division built a Sierra Wireless 4G modem into the car, which provides the infrastructure of data streaming. For the future, GM pointed to talks with Verizon Wireless' LTE, which would provide data speeds of up to 12 Mbps to a vehicle being driven. The user interface is currently based on Google's Android, but GM noted that this is purely experimental and could be transitioned to any other OS. However, what I saw on the Volt's existing touch screen in the center console looked pretty snazzy in its graphics, so there seems to be a good chance that GM may stick with it.

User input is based on touch (simple finger touch and swiping). A personal cloud network built for the car allows the driver or passenger in the front to control content that is provided to passengers in the back. At this time, content is sent to two Samsung Galaxy Tab tablets that are attached to the back of the two front seats. Conceivably, any tablet could be used in the back, and GM may opt for fixed installations in a production version.

Impressions: Look and feel

While GM representatives noted that the passengers in the rear can select content on their own, the magic is happening in the front. Because of its playful displays with richly animated graphics, the Volt is an appropriate demonstration vehicle. The Android interface feels immediately familiar to those who have previously driven a Volt. Based on a three-screen layout for the car, users in the front of the car can distribute content via finger swipes to either screen in the back and can also adjust the volume of content playing in the back.

Since the system runs a layer of the Android OS, the system supports apps available via Google Play. Apps can be downloaded via the 4G connection with plenty of bandwidth to support apps such as a download of Angry Birds, a YouTube video, and a Skype video chat in parallel. After a few minutes of demonstration, it was not especially difficult for the GM reps to convince me (as a parent of three kids) that this would be a technology that can make a lot of sense to keep kids entertained on longer drives.

However, there is more that this car can do besides keeping your children occupied. GM also showcased a home grid app that would allow your vehicle to tie into Internet-connected devices in your home and control features such as your air conditioning, an alarm system and, if Google has its way, even smaller devices such as smart light bulbs. It's nothing you couldn't also run as an app on your smartphone, but it makes a lot of sense making certain features of your home available through your car as well. For example, the entire home could adjust certain settings as soon as the car pulls into the garage.

Concerns: Cost, security

As impressive and natural as the 4G integration looks, I could not help but wonder whether I would pay extra for such a feature. In the end, we are turning into a subscription society. While our parents may have only paid for utility, TV, phone and some magazine subscriptions per month, we tend to pay for dozens of services and have added, among others, satellite radio, custom cable TV stations, various cellular voice and data services, stationary broadband, gaming network subscriptions and other cloud services. If you already pay for smartphone and tablet data, are you willing to pay for another data service just for your car? And if you do, how much? GM told me that there is room for customers’ budgets, and customers will pay if they see value in a service.

Of course, the value is clearly there. If customers see this 4G system in a working environment, it is not difficult to convince families that this is a feature they would want to buy. The question is how this service will be offered. Will it be a flat fee package, tiered plans, or in 250 MB/ 2 GB / 4 GB packages that can be purchased on demand? Pricing will be critical to help this technology succeed, as it will need to find a compromise between tight family budgets and the rather inflated sales expectations of wireless carriers.

Another concern is security. If there is a network, it can be hacked; if that network ties into the features of your car and your home, you may feel uncomfortable with it. However, GM says the system uses "strong" data encryption and uses the OnStar network as a middleman to negotiate critical data traffic to and from the car. For example, devices such as smartphones that are not registered to work with the car cannot connect with it. However, there is a lot of theory in this topic. Security threats may only become clear when such networked cars are moving from concept to commercial availability.

Availability: Not as far out as you may think

GM was careful with an answer when I was asking when we will actually be able to buy such a 4G Volt. Right now, it is still a "research vehicle," but the interface and the features worked without a hiccup. There is nothing that prevents GM from putting the 4G Volt into production within a few months. "Stay tuned" was the answer I got.

The Chevy Volt is, by itself, an impressive vehicle that breaks with many perceptions of Chevrolet. It's not the boring brand that cranks out flimsy cars anymore. The Volt feels like an entry-level luxury car one class above Toyota's Prius and translates well the user interfaces we love in smartphones and tablets into a driver and passenger interface. To evolve the Volt and other vehicles down the road, 4G integration makes a lot of sense.