How Big Tech is helping transform cars into smartphones

Tesla’s factory in Shanghai delivered its first cars to customers on Monday. (AP)
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Updated 10 January 2020

How Big Tech is helping transform cars into smartphones

  • Chinese carmaker Byton’s new M-Byte sedan features a 48-inch screen as a dashboard

LAS VEGAS: Technology companies transformed smartphones and televisions into continuous fountains of revenue. Now, big tech wants to work with automakers to do the same thing for your car.

With the widespread rollout of autonomous vehicles still years away, the two industries have converged on the idea of cars providing services and features delivered “over the air” — that is, over the same wireless data networks used by smart phones.

Those services — streaming video, vehicle performance upgrades, dashboard commerce — could answer a pressing need for automakers. They need to learn how to milk their hardware for revenue long after vehicles roll off dealers' lots. Tech companies see cars and the time people spend in them as a new frontier for growth.

Both auto and tech companies used the big CES technology show here this week to showcase their determination to make the vision of vehicles as connected revenue machines a reality. Cloud computing giants Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. were in the forefront, chasing the opportunity to manage torrents of data flowing to and from connected vehicles.

“It’s absolutely huge,” General Motors Co President Mark Reuss said in December of the opportunities to generate revenue after a vehicle is sold by providing streamed services and over-the-air upgrades facilitated by GM's new high-capacity onboard electrical system.

The pivot comes at a time when global automakers are looking for fresh revenue sources as sales slow and as rising costs to comply with tougher emissions standards threaten profit margins. Shares of legacy automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and GM badly lagged broader market indexes in 2019. The contrast is Tesla Inc., whose market cap on Wednesday for the first time exceeded Ford and GM's combined market values.

Tesla pioneered the model for charging for over-the-air upgrades, now asking customers to pay $6,000 to turn on the full self-driving option.

Other automakers are eager to try their hand at turning cars into upgradeable, revenue-generating gadgets.

Chinese carmaker Byton's new M-Byte sedan features a 48-inch screen as a dashboard, as well as a steering wheel display and a digital tablet for passengers. When parked, the car can be an office, enabling video conference calls, or a roadside cinema.

BMW showed at its CES display a concept of its future interior with reclining lounge chairs and a windshield with augmented reality built in to annotate the road ahead. BMW executive Klaus Froehlich told Reuters the automaker is seeking approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to get US approval for the seats, but could not say when they would appear in production.

Tech companies and suppliers want to accelerate the transformation of vehicles into subscription bundle-ready machines by helping automakers sort out the tangle of computer chips that make most current vehicles difficult or impossible to upgrade over the air.

The current crazy quilt of vehicle processors “is not cost effective, and it’s hard to get (vehicles) developed and launched so that everything works all the time,” said Glen De Vos, chief technology officer of auto supplier Aptiv Plc. Aptiv's solution: A new smart vehicle architecture that consolidates most computerized functions.

Harman, a unit of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., is also pushing a similar digital platform to control the flow of data in and out of the car. A centralized system, said Chief Executive Dinesh Paliwal, would help protect the car against hackers, who would have only one way in rather than dozens.

Harman, which supplies some of the technology that automakers including Tesla use to deliver the over-the-air upgrades, plans to sell its new vehicle computing brain with cybersecurity features built in — but some car buyers will have to pay to turn it on.

Qualcomm Inc, which already provides the cellular modem chips that allow vehicles to connect to the internet, introduced a more comprehensive computing system that can manage in-vehicle entertainment and help the car drive itself. One element is a much easier way for automakers and their partners to deliver feature upgrades, such as unlocking a better sound system already built into the car.

NXP Semiconductors is working on a chip that would serve as a gateway between the car and the cloud, to help automakers cope with the massive amounts of data that sensors and digital cockpits will create.

That data has to be stored and managed, and that's where cloud computing providers such as Amazon Web Services come in. AWS announced at CES a partnership with BlackBerry to develop a new software platform for connected vehicles.


Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Updated 24 February 2020

Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

  • Some of the plastic found in the sea is from car tire wear washed off the road
  • Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans, from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics” — onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. “We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums, environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue. The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to game out responses to major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just getting underway.

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)


“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,” said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions. And that will help us hone in ... and determine the data we need to do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of humans.
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason. “Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so concerned.
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each 100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’” she said.