It’s a cold day in winter and you’re driving on dry pavement when your dashboard flashes a warning: black ice up ahead. You slow down, engage your four-wheel drive and start watching for other drivers who might not be so well informed as you.
That scene, straight out of the connected-car playbook, would seem to require a few more years of public investment in smart roads, but in fact this very service was announced today. It comes from Inrix, a road-data provider based near Seattle, and from its partner in the service, Global Weather Corporation.
Up until now, Inrix had gathered basic data from hundreds of millions of moving objects throughout the world—mostly cell phones, cars and fleet vehicles—and sold it to fleet operators and car makers like Porsche. Those companies, in turn, typically made it available through smartphone apps or dashboard consoles. The new service, called INRIX Road Weather, adds data gleaned from the actions of the car—for instance, the switching of its windshield wipers—which would imply that it has started to rain.
“If several cars in a location show that a low temperature is kicking in, we’d take in their position from GPS signals, data from our weather partner, and then say that at that spot—within 500 meters—there is black ice,” says Steve Banfield, chief marketing officer for Inrix. “It’s a much more focused warning than before, not only for drivers but for the folks in charge of sanding the roads, safety patrols and law enforcement.”
The most important data come from a handful of car functions: the time of day, the GPS coordinates, the temperature outside the car, what the brakes are doing (particularly automatic braking systems), and whether the fog lights are on. Auxiliary data might include barometric pressure, the temperature of the road itself (taken by infrared sensors), barometric pressure, and of course the stage of those windshield wipers.
“We are pioneering the connected car,” Banfield says. “Today we are alerting a human driver, but it will be of incredible value to automated driving when that comes.”
Banfield wouldn’t say how much Inrix charges fleets and car makers, only that it was a minuscule sum compared to the overall cost of operating a vehicle. “The charge for the service will be paid by the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] for the first few years; after that, if customer wants to continue, then he might pay for an extended subscription.”
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.