AT&T’s “Smartphone On Four Wheels”

Drive Studio plans a wave of innovations aimed at getting drivers to give up more control.

As part of its next wave of Knight Rider-like automotive system advancements, AT&T is opening Drive Studio, a 5,200-square-foot garage and workshop in Atlanta. It’s where the communications giant plans to pair manufacturers such as Nissan, Tesla, GM, BMW, and Ford with tech giants and analytics companies such as Ericsson and Accenture. The announcement was made at the International CES in Las Vegas today.


For car companies, the idea is to team up with vendors and eventually launch promising startups. There’s big money to be made. And there’s lives to be saved. “When you get into the car of the future your smartphone needs to stay in your pocket. That is simple safety,” says Glenn Lurie, president of the mobile carrier’s emerging devices division. The “connected car” of the near future would be able to spot the cheapest nearby gas prices or more efficiently plan the best route to run errands.

That’s not exactly autonomous vehicle-level advancement. But it’s another milestone on the road to a driverless future. The biggest challenge for companies in the automotive space will involve getting drivers comfortable with conceding more and more control to their vehicles. Treating your car more like, as Lurie puts it, “a smartphone on four wheels” would push in that direction. (Folks will soon need more to do with their hands when they’re not on the wheel.) “The OEMs want to be very aggressive in this space,” Lurie says. “All of this is good. It’s just driving innovation at a faster pace.”

The company has already hot-wired one such advancement to create more global accessibility. Their corporate fleets will roll with a universal SIM card that allows bells and whistles to function in whatever country a car manufacturer wants–They plan to tap into local partner carriers in various regions. Of course, there will likely be contracts involved. Drive Studio is already working with companies such as Synchronoss and Amdocs to make sure there’s an easy way to sign up for various levels of connected car packages at dealerships, upgrade them easily while on the road, and add your car as a device on your monthly statement.

Hints about what the first types of innovations might look like are already trickling out. Last year, AT&T struck a deal to carry GM’s OnStar service, which connects drivers with live operators to give directions or help after accidents. GM will reportedly use the car as a mobile hotspot to incorporate video streaming into their offerings and perhaps offer up real-time maintenance alerts. (Chevrolet also announced today that the 2015 Chevrolet Corvette, Impala, Malibu, and Volt would be the first GM vehicles to come optionally equipped with OnStar 4G LTE.) GM and AT&T have also hosted their own hackathon that’s already funded several smart driving ventures, startups with their own apps for optimizing all parts of the connected driving experience.

For safety, one offering called GoodTimes uses AT&T’s call management API and a brainwave monitor to determine if, say, a driver dealing with rush-hour traffic is too distracted to receive an incoming call. If the user is focused elsewhere, callers receive a message to please try again later. Another for errand running, dubbed QuickTrip, uses the same back-end system to process a list of errands and create the most efficient path to complete them. Directions are projected on the windshield to help users navigate easily enough to take that incoming call. The more fun-focused venture JoyRide would allow friends not in the car to share songs with drivers or jump on a party line to keep them entertained. OnStar is even tinkering with the idea of additional security features, such as allowing users to call in to their system remotely to receive and possibly record videos of their car if an alert says it’s being tampered with. “Everything is fair game for how connectivity would work,” Lurie says.

Perhaps the biggest coup for the company’s new toolkit, though, is the addition of VoiceBox, a natural language understanding company that can help dashboard processors determine both the context and intent of spoken commands like “Find me the cheapest gas on the way home.” Sure, you might still have to drive yourself there, but you’ll save time–and some cash to put toward the next billing cycle.


About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.