Connectivity is a watchword for cars of the future. The ability to wirelessly communicate with traffic lights and other vehicles on the road is a Holy Grail for auto makers and equipment suppliers racing to develop self-driving functionality.
Even though fully connected vehicles may not be on the market until the next decade, auto makers and suppliers are giving drivers a taste of what tomorrow may bring.
Several manufacturers are adding wireless features onto some new vehicles, such as alerting drivers to low tire or oil pressure and updating touch-screen systems without a service visit. But drivers of older cars can get these new features, too: Some companies are promoting a simple workaround that can add those services to older cars that were never designed for it.
“Connectivity can be added to existing vehicles,” says Ben Hoffman, chief executive of Movimento, a software provider acquired in January by auto-parts supplier
PLC. It plans to tap into latent demand for connected services among drivers of the 264 million cars and light trucks already on the road in the U.S., according to data provider
Retrofitting uses a technology that few drivers actually see but has been standard on all vehicles made since 1996: diagnostic access points, called OBD-II ports, typically located under the steering column. Palm-size devices known as dongles—typically used by repair-shop technicians—plug into the ports and can be linked to cellular or Wi-Fi signals via smartphone.
Dongles allow drivers to do things like export trip data to spreadsheets, automatically inform emergency contacts if the car is in an accident and offer 3G wireless connections. Future uses could include collecting data on traffic flows and potentially allowing drivers to avoid red lights by using smart grids to time their trips.
Some IT experts warn that these devices are more vulnerable to hackers precisely because they are a workaround for cars lacking advanced software and security. “Dongles add a lot of risk,” says Craig Smith, research director of transportation security at
a Boston-based security-data and analytics provider. “They are designed for vehicles built at a time when the manufacturer assumed there were no vulnerabilities.”
Auto makers and suppliers say that those flaws are overstated and that the devices are a good medium-term solution—a bridge to next-generation vehicles, says Mary Gustanski, Delphi’s vice president of engineering and program management.
The market for connected-car technology using diagnostic ports is expected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2020 from $160 million in 2013, according to Frost Sullivan, a market-research firm in San Antonio. Insurance companies, which offer dongles to monitor driving patterns in exchange for premium discounts, are expected to connect 27 million vehicles by the end of the decade, Ptolemus Consulting Group estimates.
Mr. Dawson is a reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau. Email him at email@example.com.