How Sprint and IBM Are Putting Your Car on the Cloud

Sure, you want a smarter car that’s part of the “Internet of Things,” but are you ready for in-dash ads?

How Sprint and IBM Are Putting Your Car on the Cloud

Sprint aims to become the premiere wireless service provider for the ultimate mobile device–your car. The telecommunications company rolled out their Sprint Velocity connected vehicle platform last year, and Chrysler has already signed on. Now, Sprint’s newly announced partnership with IBM will allow connected vehicles to communicate with other connected devices while using far less bandwidth and power.


Sprint announced that it will be utilizing IBM’s MessageSight, an appliance specially designed for “Internet of Things” communications in traffic management systems, smart buildings, and household appliances. It will be a cornerstone of the new Sprint Velocity Service Bus communications architecture, which could lead to a tenfold increase in the speed of data transmission to and from vehicles. For example, many cars now allow you to use a phone app to start your car remotely. “But a message like that can be 60 kilobytes, which could take a couple of minutes to deliver,” says Bob Johnson, director of connected vehicle development at Sprint. “Using MessageSight, it could be a mere 6 kilobytes, and that could mean a 20-second remote start instead of two minutes.”

The files can be much tinier because they use the Message Queing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) protocol instead of HTTP. This protocol, created by employees of IBM and Cirrus Link and then open sourced, is tailored for M2M (machine to machine) communications.

A speedier connected car system could better relay real-time traffic and weather information to the driver as well. It could also lead to easier personalization, automatically resetting preferred seat and wheel positions and radio stations for each driver of a car. It’s also possible to relay vital information about your car to the manufacturer or to your local dealership. “There are dozens of sensors in the vehicle, and they’re just not working for you at this point,” says Johnson. “A dealer could get this sensor information and know that you’re going to need a new timing belt, and have the part ready for you when you come in for an oil change.”

Johnson insists that this will help us to think of a car as a mobile device that functions like your phone, able to run apps and receive over-the air updates. He says we’ll soon think it’s ridiculous that installed car navigation systems used to be static maps that quickly became outdated and needed to be taken to the dealership for an annual data refresh. “A car’s cutting edge sound system quickly gets outdated, because it’s never better than the day you buy it. Look at Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify,” Johnson says. “You never know what the next hot app is going to be. Now making those apps compatible with your car can all be handled on the backend.”

The Velocity service is currently compatible with iOS and Android devices, and Johnson says that it might eventually add Windows smartphones to that list. (No plans for BlackBerry compatibility at present.)

The global connected car market was worth an estimated $17 billion last year, and a report issued by the mobile communications trade group GSMA predicts that number will more than triple to $53 billion by 2018. Sprint’s Velocity Service Bus is a ways off–it will be available for production in January of 2014, and it may take an additional couple of years for cars that incorporate the technology to come off the line.


Vijay Sankaran, the chief technology director at Ford, said he was aware of the Sprint/IBM deal, and believed it was important because “we’re just on the cusp of a time when we’ll have millions of transactions coming off of a vehicle in real time.” Ford has reportedly already been testing IBM’s MessageSight service in its connected cars.

Sprint sells its Velocity service to the automobile companies, and it’s up to those companies to determine how they will pay for the service. They can pass the cost on to customers at the time of purchase, or create a recurring charge for the service. Another option is to offer a freemium deal in which the car manufacturer pays for Velocity in exchange for a cut of mobile ad revenue it generates. “There’s all sorts of room for marketing based on your location,” says Johnson. “It can send alerts about shops you’re passing, a heads-up offering you a discount on the price of gas at a station that’s approaching,” he says. “Mobile advertising is going to come quickly once this is in place.”

[Image by Flickr user pop culture geek]

About the author

Chris Baker's writing has appeared in Wired, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, Kill Screen, and Giant Robot.