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Will the smart, connected automobile be the next big thing in mobile?

As Google and Apple both work hard with their partners to prepare their own connected automobile platforms, we wonder, will the smart, connected automobile be the next big thing in mobile? Or is it doomed to be a niche into the foreseeable future?
By
April 17, 2014
audi infotainment

As I write this, Apple is currently showing off Carplay integration at the New York International Auto Show using partners Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai. All three companies will be releasing cars equipped with CarPlay latter this year, bringing us the next generation of ‘smart’ connected automobiles.

Meanwhile, Google is also working with automotive partners to push forwards its own Android-powered initiative under the banner of the Open Automotive Alliance. Of much less significance, Microsoft is even brewing its own Windows-based solution. Each of these platforms and initiatives have their own potential pros and cons, and each will likely appeal to different types of users, just like mobile devices such as the smartphone do today.

Will ‘smart’ connected automobiles have as big of an impact on the world as smartphones?

The big question, however, is whether ‘smart’ connected automobiles will have the same impact on the world as the smartphone has. In just a few short years, the smartphone has grown from a niche device to a near-essential way of life for many of us. Not only does the smartphone improve our communication with the world around us, it also helps us better manage our time through select apps, works as a navigation tool and so much more.

Right now, smart connected cars are mostly a niche, primarily aimed at those that are either driving luxury cars or are merely tech obsessed. But 5, 10 years out? Could the smart, connected automobile eventually have the same or even more of an impact than smartphones have had on our modern world? Absolutely.

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As automobiles increase in complexity, a smarter connected system makes sense

While I’m using the word ‘smart’ car, the reality is that today’s cars are already plenty smart and much more complex than those of just a decade or two ago. There was a time when you’d push on the gas and a cable would open the throttle, that’s not the case these days. For most vehicles, stepping on the gas sends a digital message across the CAN (Controller Area Network) bus, which in turn causes an engine controller to increase throttle.

Every aspect of our car is already connected tightly through the power of modern computing and speciality sensors.

Every aspect of our car is already connected tightly through the power of modern computing and specialty sensors. And that’s just the beginning. I’m sure you’ve seen commercial for — or perhaps you own — a vehicle that can park itself or will warn you when it comes too closely to another automobile. There’s also initiatives to take this further and bring true auto-pilot to select vehicles in the not-so-distant future.

As the powers of our automobiles advance, a flexible operating system and organized platform will be needed to ensure it all plays nicely together. It’s unclear what platform will rise up to take on this challenge, though all the big players of the mobile world seem interested in getting involved before the market explodes.

What kind of functionality should we expect from a “smart connected car?”

That’s a tough question. Like the smartphone, you can expect these next-gen smart automobiles to start out fairly modestly. For lack of a better way to describe it, we are in the RIM or PALM age of high-tech cars right now. While there are already systems in place, most of them are primitive and don’t function as smoothly as we like, and they are also mostly developed in-house by select automotive manufacturers.

There’s a real need for a platform that will break ahead and help push automobiles to new directions that current infotainment/connected systems just don’t do.

There’s a real need for a platform that will break ahead and help push automobiles in new directions that current infotainment/connected systems just don’t do. We need the connected automobile industry’s equivalent to the iPhone. Whether you like Apple or not, it’s hard to deny that the iPhone was the pebble that started massive ripples of change for the smartphone market. Carplay could be this pebble of change for automobiles or if it could be Google, that’s still undecided at this stage.

As for the type of functionality we’d like to see from connected smarter automobiles within the next decade? Here’s our predictions, or rather, our wishlist for special features from the ‘car of tomorrow’:

A seamless, connected infotainment experience

We’d love to see an infotainment system that works seamlessly with your existing mobile devices, and can perhaps even communicate with your home PC and other devices using the power of mobile broadband. To be fair, most of this is already possible in existing solutions, but Carplay and Google’s OAA initiative are looking to take this experience to the next level.

Some of the things we hope this leads to is better syncing of information to and from your mobile devices. For example, you could use your phone to bring up navigation information outside of your car, and your GPS in the car automatically would turn on and display these details.

Cars that talk with one another

Imagine a seamless communication system between the automobiles around us. Many luxury cars already have sensors and mini-cameras that monitor your vehicle’s proximity to others, with the power of Android or even a custom car OS, it would be amazing if smart cars eventually communicate anonymously with one another on the road to share proximity data and other information that could prevent accidents.

What this means is that your car could even alert you and tell you to pull over to side of the road or take another route because an accident is up ahead, with the information of this accident coming straight from the automobile(s) that were involved in the collision.

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Your mechanic could know what’s wrong before you have a problem

A smart connected car might someday have a setup process not unlike when you first set up your Android mobile devices. That means you would link your Google Play account, set up your default email address and so forth. What if it also meant you could choose a “trusted mechanic” to add to the list, such as a local shop or perhaps a dealership?

A few months (or years) later your car might not be showing any signs of issues, but as soon as the car is aware there’s an issue, it would have the power to report the problem to its operating system. From there, the car would send the CEL (Check Engine Light) details and other diagnostic reports over to a chosen mechanic. The mechanic could then contact you and ask if you want to set up an appointment to have your vehicle looked at.

Don’t worry, your car has the wheel

It would be nice if our cars had the ability to self-drive, or at least take over in select situations. While full self-driving might still be a bit of a ways off, imagine that you start to drift off to sleep, smart sensors in your car recognize that you aren’t focused on the road, they relay this information to your car, and it takes over while blasting a sounded alert to wake you up so you can take back control over your car.

A car that knows what you want

A connected car would know when you need gas and could suggest the gas station closest to you with the lowest possible price.

My car might follow me around as I go to the store or visit friends and family, but it knows little about me. The car of tomorrow will know where you are going, it will know your driving habits and it will be able to give you recommendations based on your own interests.

Your car will know your favorite restaurants and automatically brings these top choices up first when you ‘ask’ your car to suggest something. Additionally, a connected car would also know when you are likely to add gas (maybe you always do it when it gets to a 1/4 tank) and could suggest the gas station closest to you with the lowest possible price.

Your connected car could also make playlist suggestions for your music collection, it could give your traffic alerts and intelligent rerouting. The list goes on.

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Hurdles that stand in the way

The idea of a future where smart connected cars provide us active notifications and make ‘smart’ decisions on our behalf might sound cool, but it probably also seems more than a little impractical at this point. Of course, ten years ago, a quad-core computing device that makes calls and runs millions of apps would have seemed a nice but far-off idea as well, and yet here my Nexus 5 sits next to me on my desk.

If Google, Apple, Microsoft and their manufacturing partners can create a standard that works flawlessly, we’re going to not only see more smart/connected cars in the near future, we are going to see their capabilities expand dramatically in the next few years. Of course, there’s some very real hurdles in our way that will need to be addressed before connected ‘smart’ cars can truly live up to their full potential.

4G LTE, who’s buying?

First, the idea of bringing mobile broadband into our cars might raise a few questions. The 2015 Audi A3 is the first vehicle to offer integrated 4G LTE in our cars, though Ford, GM and several other manufacturers are working on doing the same. Audi’s solution uses AT&T, but it’s not free. Instead, consumers will need to spend either $99 for six months or $499 for 30 months.

While consumers of higher-end vehicles like an Audi might be okay with paying extra for web access, those owning a Dodge or Ford might not feel the same way. Right now, 4G LTE in your car is almost 100% about entertainment, but five years from now your car may be sending diagnostic information to your car maker, communicating with cars around it using the web, and so much more.

Before we reach this point, we need to determine who should be responsible for fronting the costs. Obviously AT&T and other carriers aren’t going to give us free service, so it comes down to whether the car owner should pay, or whether the cost should be worked into the automobile’s sticker price.

Trust issues

This is a big one, to be honest. A new survey is going around talking about consumer’s fear of future technologies. While the survey doesn’t talk about connected cars, the survey did suggest 50% they wouldn’t be willing to take a ride in a driverless car.

A car that communicates with others on the road and can take over the wheel is going to have some PR issues. While these features are cool, manufacturers will need to find ways to ensure security, privacy and safety if consumers are to fully embrace the idea of a connected smart car. That includes removing distractions when possible — after all, do we really need more distractions as drivers?

Reliability

While Google Android is fairly reliable, your phone can still crash, get malware or have other issues. Having a problem with your phone is annoying, but it’s not life or death. If you automobile is glitching, things could be much more serious.

The first wave of connected, smart cars will be nothing more than infotainment devices so this isn’t a real problem just yet. It is something that will need to be addressed as these cars evolve into machines that can self-drive and ‘think’ for themselves on the road, though.

Having a problem with your phone is annoying, but it’s not life or death. If you automobile is glitching, things could be much more serious.

Those are just three possible ‘issues’ standing in the way of the connected, smart super-car’s future, and there are likely many more. Bottom-line, connected cars are about to get more and more commonplace, but they still have a way to go before they truly impact our lives at the same level that smartphone have. Could we be there in just a few years, however? Maybe.

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