Cloud computing is a somewhat general term for a broad category of technology services. At its core, cloud computing is used to describe data acquisition or distribution through the Internet and wireless networks. As a logical expansion of the similar Software as a Service (Saas) design, where software users get remote access to applications rather than downloading them, cloud computing services also use existing networks as a conduit for remote services.

However, much of the debate around cloud computing today is focused on what kinds of services can be provided, and when it would make sense for an electronic device or technology to draw on this kind of remote data access.

One good example of where cloud computing is getting a good deal of attention is in the automotive industry, which has been advancing rapidly toward higher-tech cars for more than a decade. The idea of using cloud-based services in vehicles is just starting to catch on, and as automotive engineers ponder its unique utility, a lot of potential innovations in vehicle design are presenting themselves. (For background reading, check out Cloud Computing: Why the Buzz?)

Major Benefits of Cloud Computing for Vehicles

One of the ways that cloud computing could really assist in better vehicle engineering, according to a large number of engineers, is by allowing for a smaller center console. With less hardware under the dash, and many data tasks outsourced to a remote server, vehicles could get slimmer control boards, and a bit more leg room.

Another advantage of cloud-based computing in vehicles relates to a driver’s financial investment and a car’s insurance value. With fewer expensive data storage elements in the vehicle, engineers might be able to decrease the cost of our increasingly computerized cars.

Some Applications for Automotive Cloud Services

Practical considerations aside, cloud computing could also bring much more capability to the average vehicle in many ways. One of these is actually related to drive dynamics. New vehicles often have electronically adjustable suspensions; with cloud computing, these could be more automated, providing a very customized ride. The same is true for electronically disconnecting sway bars and other off-roading features on some Jeeps and multi-purpose SUVs.

Another area where many drivers could rely on cloud computing is in bringing personalized data to the cabin of a car or other vehicle. For drivers, this means that their data - from online calendars and contacts to a personal music library - could travel with them, right at their fingertips. This kind of data used to be accessible only in physical luggage!

Safety with Automotive Cloud Computing

Convenience and drive functionality are not the only types of benefits driving auto experts to look at practical applications for cloud services in vehicles. In fact, cloud capabilities are much more than a cool new toy for car owners to play with; they could also effect advances in automotive safety.

One simple way to describe the powerful appeal of cloud computing in vehicular safety design is that cloud services could enable more efficient GPS-enabled augmented reality devices. Augmented reality is a technical term for a range of very new auto features that will help to protect drivers and passengers. Many consumers are familiar with some of these features, some of which are already available in today’s new vehicle market. One example is a lane departure warning system now common on some new luxury cars or other upscale vehicles. This system typically relies on satellite signals to help keep a car traveling in a safe path.

Other similar features include pre-collision warnings, which, in some vehicles, employ sonar and automated braking to prevent a crash. These systems generally use physical sensors, but cloud computing would enable more consolidation for the acquisition of key satellite signals, while possibly making some kinds of physical sensors obsolete because of the large amount of physical data that could be sent over cloud services.

While using cloud services for enhancing augmented reality in vehicles is very interesting to the vanguard of auto engineers, some of what these wireless systems could provide has more to do with what cloud signals could disable than what they could enable, and although this might not be a selling point for some consumers, the results could save thousands of lives annually: today’s auto makers, not to mention cell phone and personal device engineers, are scrambling to provide high-tech ways to disable cell phone texting or even talking above a certain miles-per-hour benchmark. This frantic research is driven by state insurance offices and other public officials, who deal with the sometimes tragic results of driving while using a personal device. Agencies like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Insurance Information Institute have exhaustively detailed the high rates of fatal accidents related to dangerous cell phone distractions. With cloud technology aimed at curbing irresponsible use of cell phone technology, the state and national statistics that everyone is working to decrease could plummet quickly.

Auto-Accessed Cloud Services and Convenience

The personal data that cloud applications could bring to a vehicle cabin is part of a greater idea that includes seasonal maintenance of a vehicle. This type of engineering could also enable many of the “hardware” features in cars, from heated and ventilated seating to heating and cooling for mirrors, windshields and wipers. The guarantee that a driver would never need to manually defrost a windshield again might be a powerful attraction that cloud computing could bring to a particular auto maker’s product line.

Security and Interference Considerations with On-Board Cloud Services

Although many consumers are still worried about security with cloud services, most of the applications for automobiles would not be related to the kinds of valuable personal data that data thieves might target. (Learn more about some of the risks in cloud computing in The Dark Side of the Cloud.)

As for interference with existing auto technologies, cloud services are unlikely to interfere with Bluetooth, since the latter operates on key portions of the industrial, scientific and medical devices (ISM) frequency, while cloud applications use a conventional WAN setup.

Pioneering Cloud Cars

Companies pioneering the design of new cloud features for cars will likely continue to address any concerns associated with data security or troublesome downtime events in an effort to make the cloud fit the needs of tomorrow’s drivers.