What's next for Nokia, now that Microsoft owns its handset business Relevant Products/Services? One new direction will be an investment of $100 million backing companies that are making cars more intelligent and connected -- and, in some ventures, making them driverless.

On Monday, the company revealed the plans by its venture capital fund, Nokia Growth Partners, which handles about $700 million for Nokia. A partner in the fund, Paul Asel, told Bloomberg Businessweek that "the car is really becoming a platform like when the mobile Relevant Products/Services handset became a smartphone and all the apps and services developed around that."

The investment is built around Nokia's map business, which has become a mainstay of the handset-less company. In 2008, Nokia bought map provider Navteq and 3-D technology provider Earthmine. Nokia's map data Relevant Products/Services is used by Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, and all but one of the five car navigation systems.

'Like a Windfall'

Avi Greengart, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, told us that Nokia's three main lines of business now are wireless networking equipment, intellectual property and mapping. "So," he said, "if you're a mapping company, [smarter and] driverless cars are like a windfall."

In terms of driverless technology, Greengart said delivering on the promise is part of Nokia's challenge, as it is for Google, which has actively promoted its experiments and progress in the field.

Because of Nokia's reliance now on its mapping business as one leg of its three-legged stool, it needs to protect Relevant Products/Services that business. "As Google pushes forward," Greengart said, "Nokia [needs to be able to] counterbalance that by putting up a bounty for anyone who's doing this" and isn't named Google. The search giant, of course, has its own extensive mapping business.

Last week, Google posted on its blog that it has improved the software on its driverless cars so that the vehicles can better deal with the vagaries of everyday driving.

The new software for Google's test car can now "detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously -- pedestrians, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn," the company said.

'Lots of Problems'

A wide range of intelligent technologies are beginning to pop up around the auto industry, in addition to the Bluetooth connectivity that has become standard in many models, and the increasing levels of Internet connectivity.

Toyota, for instance, said last fall that it will deploy systems that will enable cars to automatically avoid collisions.

Models from Honda, Toyota and others already include front-end collision detection systems, and BMW is offering driverless parallel parking. Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and GM currently offer radar-based cruise control that keeps cars a safe distance from other cars, and can stop in time to prevent a crash.

GM has said it will have almost-driverless cars by 2020 under limited road conditions, although it has also predicted that completely driverless cards are two to three decades away. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that his company is considering featuring driverless technologies in its all-electric vehicles.