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Sprint Velocity: Is the Future of In-Car Connectivity Here?

Will Sprint bridge the gap between how we interact with tech, in- and outside of our cars?

By Matthew Askari | April 22, 2013
"New buyers don't understand a world without the internet," the voice on the other end of the phone tells me. I'm halfway through what will end up being an hour-long telephone conversation, one that was originally only supposed to be 15 minutes. Scheduled hours before I'm to depart on back-to-back trips, I ask if we can chat over the phone rather than in person. Nothing, as it turns out, could be more fitting. The man I'm chatting with is Wayne Ward, Sprint's vice president of Emerging Solutions. If anyone can appreciate a meeting held using a mobile device, it's this man. At the moment, Ward is touting Sprint Velocity, the mobile carrier's in-vehicle infotainment system, one that very well may raise the bar for how we interact with media in our cars. Tech is getting creative and Sprint wants to harness mobile technology, and adapt it for the in-vehicle platforms of tomorrow. Sprint believes a mountain of acquired data and insights from its mobile business will help give it a competitive advantage. "There are certain basic things we know," Ward says. Things like how long people engage, and how much content or data is transferred, used, what times people use media, and preferences. And automakers are paying attention; Chrysler has already bet big on Sprint Velocity, which is the wireless technology backbone for the new UConnect Access system, featured in the Ram 1500, SRT Viper, and the 2014 Jeep Cherokee. Using a combination of industry buzzwords (open-source telematics platform, anyone?) and a hearty dose of the common-tongue, even-a-journalist-can-understand-language, it's clear Ward is a believer. Technology is evolving at a voracious, unrelenting pace, and it seems the world is struggling to keep up. The smartphone revolution has literally reshaped human interaction. Mobile devices have become high-speed, hand-held personal computers; quick and easy ways to access the internet, and a whole universe of applications have been created, to help us consume this new technology. "People expect interfaces to be as easy to use as smartphones and tablets," Ward says. "OEM's are still figuring out how to harness and utilize this technology, but it's all available for them should they choose to use it. The real opportunity is in the personalization of the vehicle, the opportunity to create brand loyalty." Automakers have taken notice of the smartphone revolution. The Cadillac CUE system, for example, was designed with a touchscreen that features smartphone-like behaviors, like icons with "haptic" feedback like on a Samsung Galaxy, and swiping pages on the screen like iPhones and other smart devices. Chevrolet's MyLink allows you to bookmark favorites, and virtually every automaker either offers or plans to offer downloadable apps. But is it enough? It seems people aren't really doing more than using their nav systems, and maybe satellite or streaming radio. Will we change our behavior based on what's offered?

Possibilities

Sprint Velocity is specialized software that can be customized based on an automaker's needs. An online video shows some of the possibilities of Sprint's new system. At the core are the personalized aspects -- news, weather, music, sports scores -- all based on preferences and previous selections. A family can purchase WiFi, either monthly or just for a road trip, allowing passengers with different devices to do whatever it is people do online, all from the car. Imagine the kids in back gaming or streaming Netflix as you drone through Midwestern farmland, or your passengers emailing Grand Canyon photos as you drive through Arizona.
At one point, a fictitious couple drives by a baby store, and receives a text saying, "Congratulations! 20 percent off all infant products." This caught me off guard. While some people like offers, others might be averse to receiving promotional information or advertisements from yet another source. When I ask Ward about this, he says it's not what's happening now, rather something automakers can explore should they choose to. When I ask Ward where he thinks growth will come from, the answer comes swiftly and without hesitation: "It's machine-to-machine. Specifically, vehicles," adding that while there are 250 million vehicles on the road in North America, only 5 percent are "connected." The mobile giant is also shopping Sprint Velocity around to other automakers. While Chrysler has adopted it for use with its UConnectAccess units, other automakers could do the same. He says Sprint is "in talks" with other OEMs, and is in the product planning phases. Asked about opportunities outside of North America, Ward says the natural auto markets are possibilities; Velocity, he says, is "network agnostic," meaning Sprint could tap its partners in other markets to use the technology. Europe, Latin America -- especially developing economies such as Brazil -- and Japan and China represent particular growth opportunities.

Safety

The conversation regarding distracted driving is one of growing concern and increasing debate. When I ask Ward about how Sprint Velocity is addressing this, while simultaneously increasing the amount of content and media we can consume while driving, his response is clear. The "eyes on the road, hands on the wheel" mantra is still the approach. Ward believes in "safety first, all else second." He says current client Chrysler warns against texting and driving and hand-held phone use. Beyond Chrysler and Velocity, Sprint also supports various capabilities that help reduce distracted driving, like voice commands and voice-to-text capability, a cell-phone disable feature when the vehicle is traveling over 5 mph, and even the ability to hold a text message while driving.But people still have to adopt and embrace these features. "We're not going to dictate what people can and can't do in their cars, but all the technology is available, and OEMs can choose to offer and use it."

Obscure to Frontrunner

There's a rift between how people use and relate to technology inside of a car, and while out of one. The challenge is not in mirroring the experience and interaction people have with their smartphones, tablets, and computers, but in anticipating future behavior. What's current now will be dated in 2-3 years. Some of that can be mitigated with updating software, but the hardware is important too. Early in-vehicle navigation systems look dated today, even though they were futuristic not that long ago. These current ones will eventually look dated too, far quicker than the cars themselves. Not everything can be figured out at once, but if smartphones and tablets are the model, Sprint believes it has a competitive advantage. Far from a pioneer in this infotainment realm, the mobile giant is hoping to leverage a Mt. Everest pile of data, one it can mine for insights into human behavior and interaction with technology. With all this data, Sprint is hoping to lead a revolution, one forged on a touchscreen, in a place most people spend several hours a week: in their cars.
Learn more about the Chrysler UConnect Access, or Sprint Velocity.

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