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Taking a Spin Around AT&T's Atlanta Drive Studio

AT&T has turned part of an Atlanta parking garage into a workshop to help power the car of the future.

Ina Fried

In the corner of an Atlanta parking garage, AT&T is developing what it hopes will be the future of the automotive industry — cars filled with all manner of electronics, linked, of course, to one of its high-speed wireless connections.

What began as an idea a year ago has turned into a full-fledged workshop, including a mechanics bay, showroom and conference room where AT&T and its many automotive partners can collaborate on in-car electronics. The timing is right, AT&T says, with the industry shifting its focus from the horsepower of the engine to the power of the technology.

“Automakers are selling cars based on the infotainment systems,” said Chris Penrose, the AT&T executive in charge of expanding the company’s business beyond phones and tablets. “That’s really the foundation for why we developed this.”

AT&T, like many in the wireless industry, is working hard to curry favor with car makers and has begun to see success, landing deals with Audi, Nissan, Ford, BMW, Tesla and, importantly, General Motors, where it will equip the next generation of OnStar with its 4G LTE service.

A big part of AT&T’s approach has been to assemble an array of different options, allowing auto makers to pick and choose which capabilities they want to incorporate. Brian Greaves, a director of product development for AT&T, says the auto manufacturers vary widely in what they want from tech partners.

“Right now the telematics industry is very fragmented,” Greaves said.

In the showroom part of the AT&T Drive Studio is a silver BMW 328i. Along the walls are eight flat-screen monitors, including an 80-inch touchscreen, where various prototype systems can be shown. From there, a garage door lifts up to enter a well-equipped conference room where both the entire wall and the conference table itself are giant whiteboards where various partners can sketch their ideas.

So far, AT&T and its partners are using the space for everything from far-off research around autonomous driving to improving the basics, such as Bluetooth pairing of cellphones with the current generation of in-car systems.

Further back, a mechanic’s bay has room for two working cars, though one of the spots is currently filled with the shell of a car that AT&T has outfitted with the latest in automotive tech, including a digital dashboard and rear-seat entertainment system. The recorded sound of a V8 engine plays as the “car” is started and the navigation system comes to life.

A red Nissan Leaf is parked nearby. While much of the work at AT&T’s studio is conceptual, the bay does have the tooling and exhaust systems needed to crank up the engine and have the car running.

While much of the work being done here will show up in the cars of the future, AT&T is also expanding the options it offers for current car owners. The Audiovox Car Connection is a $179 device that plugs into a vehicle’s accessory port and lets customers keep track of how their teenagers are driving, sending text alerts based on geography or other factors, such as speeding and excessive acceleration or braking. The device, which also requires a monthly data fee, quietly went on sale in November, but has not yet been heavily promoted.

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