The "4G" term is everywhere now, but although smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers are using the new technology, we've heard little about it from the automotive industry. The potential is intriguing, however, because in the past decade, car companies have made huge progress in integrating high-speed connected communications and entertainment systems with automobiles.

For an industry that not long ago pushed car phones and trunk-mounted CD changers as the pinnacle of in-vehicle technology, practical services such as GM's pioneering OnStar and high-tech infotainment options like the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system have been significant advances, adding tremendous value and unrivaled convenience for today's drivers.

Most of those services have run on 2G and 3G connections. But 4G is coming to the automobile, and some of the chatter coming from automakers suggests that the 4G-connected car will perform a whole new set of tricks.

In the past year or so, broadband concept cars such as the NG Connect Toyota Prius and the Verizon OnStar 4G Buick LaCrosse have given enthusiasts a glimpse into the near future of automotive connectivity. Utilizing the Verizon 4G LTE network, the LaCrosse's wild features included a custom in-dash display portal that offered online access stored in remote servers, a driver-facing camera in the rearview mirror for video Skype chats, a home-control system, and Internet-based, voice-controlled entertainment.

With such tantalizing inventions at hand, we interviewed several car-company experts, asking them to discuss the broadband technology of tomorrow, and what it will mean for drivers.

Ford's Sync Service

Ford's Venkatesh Prasad has big ideas. "Ford won't speak officially about a 4G production time," he says, "but we're closely evaluating it, and seriously considering the best ways to implement it."

As the senior technical leader for vehicle design and infotronics in the Ford Research and Innovation group (or Ford's "What's Next" guy, for short), Prasad has greatly influenced the development of Ford's Sync system. Sync leverages the data connections of smartphones to deliver apps, entertainment offerings, and navigation services to the vehicle. Because it allows Bluetooth pairing with smartphones, using it with 4G phones results in faster, "smartphone 4G" data speeds. And since the high-end Sync with MyFord Touch package can use a USB modem or a smartphone as an in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot, it's poised to take advantage of tomorrow's fatter data pipes.

"Sync would benefit from a large-pipe connection because it is based on what's built in, brought in, or beamed in," Prasad says. "Bandwidth-heavy video and entertainment would be possible, and rear-seat passengers wouldn't have to stay at home to finish a movie or a Skype conversation. And current services like navigation could be enhanced--instead of having a box in the vehicle, turn-by-turn nav with augmented graphics could be piped in directly from the cloud."

Ford's Evos Concept

Prasad is a big proponent of the cloud; he spent a year working on the connectivity aspects of the groundbreaking 2011 Evos concept car. "The Evos is an example of a vehicle platform that's fully capable of embracing new technology," Prasad says, beaming.

And once you realize what Evos can do, you understand his enthusiasm: It's a fascinating look into a world where the driver's personal information and schedule combine with cloud-based info such as the current traffic and weather conditions, resulting in a seamless, customized experience that goes far beyond just driving. Evos will reset your alarm clock if a meeting is canceled, preheat or precool your cabin based on your estimated departure time, and sync your home or office music to the car. It can even offer adaptive vehicle technologies to combine your driving skill with the road and weather conditions, and adjust the suspension and other components for a spirited but safe drive.

Next page: Audi, Cadillac, and Kia systems

Audi's Connect System

Audi recently partnered with Alcatel-Lucent to show off the potential of a prototype broadband LTE version of the Audi Connect infotainment system; the A8 test vehicle boasted impressive data-transfer rates of up to 100 megabits per second. Audi's production Connect system is capable of 7.2-mbps in-vehicle speeds, and 2012 models with Connect are considered the first production Web-connected vehicles. Through a partnership with T-Mobile, this SIM-card-activated service-plan system features navigation and weather/news/gas-price travel services that stay up-to-date with a built-in cellular data connection, and its integrated Wi-Fi can connect up to eight devices.

But Audi is not resting on its laurels: Anu Pom Malhotra, Audi's connected vehicle strategist, has big ideas for the future. "We recognize that our customers want an enriched experience, and our technology could [eventually] enhance the Connect system up to hundreds of mbps," Malhotra says. "I see the future consumption of data through methods more along the lines of streaming, as opposed to bit-by-bit. Info could be exchanged by devices in the vehicle, between the cloud, and even between the infrastructure and other vehicles--that info exchange between traffic would improve the ability to manage travel time."

Cadillac's CUE System

CUE, which stands for Cadillac User Experience, is a combined infotainment, navigation, and communication system that's easy to use. It enables users to connect up to ten Bluetooth mobile devices--its Bluetooth Audio Streaming AVRCP 1.4 supports wireless browsing of media players--and it features two USB ports and an SD Card slot, too. CUE dazzles with a four-button design, a display offering haptic feedback and proximity sensing, and OnStar integration. And CUE's smartphone connectivity is a good example of how manufacturers are bridging the gap between today's "smartphone 4G" and tomorrow's true mobile broadband.

"We are leveraging smartphones, but if you look at that 4G space, some of the phones that are on market are data-only solutions right now," says Tim Nixon, executive director and global functional leader of GM's Infotainment and OnStar groups. "What we want to do is an all-inclusive platform with voice and data. Once you start talking 20-plus mbps, some very interesting discussions about cloud-based services happen. Sometime down the road--not too far away--we want to grow and expand this platform," Nixon says.

Speaking of expanding the platform, Nixon and his team are already sitting on an information gold mine.

"We have found an unbelievable amount of richness in OnStar data that we see as an opportunity to enhance the driving experience," he states. "This data mining could lead to vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure interaction. For instance, if drivers at mile marker XXX had their wipers on, that info could be passed to vehicles approaching that point. Or if numerous stability-control activations happened at a certain point in the road, those vehicles could signal to other vehicles that there is black ice ahead. I don't see things like full-motion video road signs being out of the realm of possibility."

And taking it a step further would only enhance the driving experience, says Ford's Prasad.

"I can see augmented reality making driving more convenient," Prasad notes. "For example, on-demand selective real-time transparency would give you a better sense of your surroundings. You could be coming down an avenue in NYC and looking for a parking spot. If you could make that city bus transparent, you could see a spot you didn't even know was there! These are the kinds of features that we'll be working towards."

Kia's UVO System

Dreaming big and reaching for a Minority Report-like future is one way to approach mobile broadband. However, other people believe that 4G connectivity will be the only available option in the future.

"We're headed down the 4G path for a couple of reasons," states Henry Bzeih, Kia's head of infotainment and connectivity. Kia's voice-activated UVO system, like Ford's Sync, is the impressive result of a partnership with Microsoft. It features Bluetooth smartphone connections, a color touchscreen, an integrated rearview camera, and a 700MB in-dash music hard drive. While Bzeih hints towards UVO being Kia's global infotainment and telematics brand platform going forward, he can't help but wonder if, down the road, we'll have only one generation of wireless technology to power it.

"Current technology may not be supported in the long term--according to some carriers, 3G will be going away by 2020. If you embed 3G technology into a vehicle, it's possible that this type of content won't be available throughout a ten-year vehicle life," Bzeih says.

"Also, future features won't be available with 3G. Things like personal assistants, or proactive safety services using V-to-V and V-to-I technology, need bandwidth beyond 3G. So it's safe to bet that, based on carriers and technology, going to 4G isn't going to be a choice."

So while today's car companies flirt with 4G speeds and employ the latest smart devices for their state-of-the-art infotainment systems, many broadband obstacles still remain. But it's only a matter of time before carriers, engineers, and bean counters shift to production-based mobile broadband, and turn 3G and its "smartphone 4G" successor into the CD changers of our hard-drive-oriented world.