Chris Penrose, senior vice president, internet of things solutions, at AT&T speaks about the telecommunication company’s role in the auto industry, the business opportunities to come from driverless cars and the need to keep connected vehicles safe.

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AT&T’s Penrose says CIOs’ first question is always about security (Photo: AT&T)

For AT&T, the connected car is at the center of the US telecommunications group’s plan to play a leading role in the transformation of the auto industry. The company provides connectivity to many of the world’s largest passenger-car and truck brands and the number of vehicles connected through its networks is growing rapidly. Chris Penrose has been with the company more than 25 years and has worked in its mobility division since 2005.

How important is the auto industry to AT&T?

Connected cars is one of our biggest and longest standing verticals. We have focused very heavily on what will make connected cars a reality and we’re not just looking at the automakers, but are also asking the question: What do consumers get when they are connected? With connectivity, the auto industry is now seeing an opportunity to improve the car over time, rather than thinking it was perfect out of the factory gate. The car gets improved through over-the-air updates, it can provide maintenance information, diagnostics can be improved to make a car better.

And how is AT&T positioned in the automotive transformation now in progress?

We have more than 18 million connected cars in our networks around the world, and we are adding about 1 million to 1.5 million new cars every quarter. We have relationships with about 25 different automotive brands and that list is growing.

How competitive is your offering in this crowded field?

We are one of the early founders of the global SIM technology that allows automakers to embed connectivity in the vehicle. We can activate connectivity in any location, which means you can roam in multiple networks. We can even re-credential a connection to make it look like you are using a local-carrier SIM. That simplicity has really resonated. We can also split billing between the automaker and the customer, charging each for a particular data set. This was a big request from the auto industry and we were the first to build this technology.

Are you also getting involved in the software, in the data capture and analytics that will play such a key role with autonomous vehicles?

We offer platforms that enable us to do complete activation flows for dealers and for individual consumers. We can work with them to take the data off the vehicle and share that data with other parties. Fleet vehicles provide a lot of data, including location, braking, acceleration or the time a vehicle is being used. We are also involved in the smart city environment with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Can you provide some specific examples of what you do with automotive data analytics?

We have different relationships around data analytics but the collaboration with CarForce is the first one that specifically covers this area. Carforce builds a car maintenance platform with predictive functions. We also work with IBM, taking data off IoT devices and pushing them to their platforms that use Watson for analytics. An adjacent area is where we track the health of assets in real time. These assets could be jet engines, connected coolers or vending machines. We have worked with automakers to create health scores for assets in the field.

And where do you see your role in autonomous driving?

Autonomous is the next thing in the space. We sponsor the American Center for Mobility, a proving ground for autonomous vehicles in Michigan. We are the exclusive network provider for that facility and we are going to put in all of the existing network technologies as well as 5G in the near future.

Who are your main automotive customers? Manufacturers or fleet managers?

Both, really. And we also work with Tier 1 automotive suppliers. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona we announced a partnership with Geotab for fleet solutions. Geotab is using AT&T connectivity in all the fleet devices it is creating.

And how do you approach security in the connected world?

The number one question every CIO asks me when we start talking about connecting things is what they have to do to secure everything. We design everything with security involved. We first look what you need to do on the physical device to make sure it is as secure as possible? The second layer is at the network level. The question there is how do you ensure that data that move off the device into the cloud and other database environments doesn’t touch the public internet and is secure end-to-end.

Where do you see particular vulnerabilities for the connected car?

The key question is: How do you set up an environment where data is automatically blocked if it isn’t coming from a specific, pre-approved location. That helps a lot against outside penetration. You cannot allow an entity that hasn’t been pre-approved to have any kind of conversation with the vehicle. You also have to build an architecture that separates the infotainment cluster from the control of vehicle operations. It is really important to have two different environments in the car.