In the future, cars will be less product and more process
This year has seen an upsurge in mobile connectivity, but not just in handsets and laptops. It’s cars too that are getting plugged in.
Joining Ford’s grandfatherly SYNC system (which first debuted in its original iteration way back in, oh, aught-seven I reckon), and Tesla, which offers free 3G on its Model S series cars, are Audi and Buick.
Audi’s A3 model will feature 4G connectivity beginning this summer, bumped up from 3G+, which was offered in their Audi 47 model under the brand “Audi Connect,” still offered throughout the Audi catalogue.
“Several years ago, Audi viewed that the future of connected cars hinged on the ability to deliver a broadband pipeline into the car’s infotainment systems so that massive amounts of data could be delivered to equip motorists with the best information on navigation routes and destinations,” Audi America’s corporate communications manager, Brad Stertz said.
This upgrade to 4G will allow users to turn their ride into a WiFi hotspot and will allow the company to offer more apps to run on the A3’s onboard computer. This connectivity, provided through AT&T, will be free for six months, then cost $99 a month for a six month contract, or $499 for a 30 month contract.
“The new Audi A3 sedan models arriving now are the first cars in the U.S. with LTE service,” Brad Stertz, corporate communications manager for Audi, told me.
“European versions of the A3 out last year were the first cars in the world with LTE.”
Following Audi, most of the 2015 Buick’s line will come with 4G LTE connectivity, with the rest of GM’s brands following the next year. Connectivity is available through AT&T and, on a piecemeal basis, via the OnStar system (best known for being the source of concerned lady voices in car commercial accidents). Applications available for the system will come via Buick’s AppShop, accessed through the brand’s IntelliLink system.
This emphasis on apps rang alarm bells for Ben Lamm, CEO and co-founder of Austin’s Chaotic Moon product development studio.
“The rush to create the connected car of the future is having the opposite effect of connection,” Lamm wrote in an op-ed for Forbes. “In-dash tech is fragmented, hard to use, and full of apps that don’t translate across multiple platforms.”
The problem, in his estimation, is the lack of a shared development platform across brands. Even if they do get together, as Audi, Google, NVIDIA, GM, Honda and Hyundai are trying to do with the Open Automotive Alliance, in-car tech devs are still focusing on apps and that momentum will be hard to slow.
“The generally-accepted way forward is unsafe,” said Lamm.
“Apps are not the final answer, just the first phase,” countered Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst and head of automotive practice at Gartner. “Understanding the implications of connectivity, I’m not sure that in 10 years we’ll be talking about apps even on devices. Apps are not the long term direction.” In fact, Koslowski told us he sees a time when we will not really be “using” technology in the sense of operating it, as we do now.
“Automotive technology should be able to determine the kind of info you need given your situation,” he said. If you’re driving fast in the rain, a phone call coming in should not come to you, it should go direct to your voicemail. If you want a restaurant or showtimes, you will be able to get it by having a voice conversations with a virtual assistant.
“The cloud,” wrote Lamm, “will be the the glue between mobile-device productivity apps, the GPS system, the engine control unit, entertainment, music, retail and eventually connected home apps.”
Koslowsi goes further.
“The car will become self aware in the next years,” he said.
Driving beyond the cloud
Let’s go forward from the individual vehicles and their tech, especially apps, follow that migration into a cloud-based medium of interaction, and take it one step further.
Koslowski has coined a term for the logical conclusion of this migration to the cloud: “Mobility as a service.”
Koslowski believes that MaaS is not just a shorthand for a concept that may or may not come to fruition in the future. He sees it in the recent history of automotive technology and lists some indications of the reality of this in a piece he authored for Wired: “Avis acquiring Zipcar; the first over-the-air automotive software patch by Tesla; Intel getting significantly involved in the connected vehicle value-chain; big telcos like Sprint extending their reach into automotive; a high-ranking Apple executive taking a seat on a carmaker’s board.”
Koslowski sees a future, and not a distant one, when there will not be car owners as such. Instead there will be subscribers, who pay a monthly fee to access a car, which will deliver itself to the user’s house and, coming within his or her house or device field, will update its information environment to reflect the needs and desires of the current driver, wiping that information when the driver is done with it.
This migration to a shared information environment for our mobility is disruptive in the old tech sense.
“This transition is going to prove dire for auto manufacturers,” he said. “They will have to decide whether they are device manufacturers or mobility companies. There are similar implications for a lot of different industries” from oil companies to grocery chains.
Among the casualties? Public transit and the people who love it. The kind of flexibility inherent in a MaaS approach to ownership “will make cars more compelling even for those who now prefer transit.”
Most of the technology to make Koslowski’s vision a reality exist. Except for one important element.
“The most important need for this to work is for us to have cloud based capabilities,” he said. “We need infrared to have data go back and forth between vehicle and other objects and we need WiFi and GPS.”
The missing ingredient is a ubiquitous cell network, without which the system gets interrupted. Anyone who’s driven through empty country, gone hiking into the back woods, or wandered into (or lived) in certain sections of American cities, knows that America’s cell network is a lot of things, but ubiquitous is not one of them.
The future may hold great things for our personal mobility. We may see an increase in ease and efficiency and a reduction in both ecological and personal harm. But as it currently stands, the connected car seems to underscore the persistence of that now rarely referenced issue: the digital divide.
The cars with connectivity are often luxury cars. As Brad Stertz said, “For the past few years Audi has enjoyed the greatest percentage of Gen X and Gen Y customers in the luxury car market. As these younger customers approach buying a luxury car they expect similar functionality that they get from their other mobile devices.”
Even when they are what Koslowski called “volume brand cars,” they are still new cars. Poor people, by and large, do not buy new cars.
Koslowski argues that “it is the average consumer that will ‘drive’ the evolution of the connected vehicle forward. Consumers who often don’t like to spend a lot of money on a car still spend a good amount on technology and mobile devices. Hence they expect their ‘regular’ car to be connected as well.”
But ponying up $200 for an iPhone is a far cry from dropping $14,000 on even a low-end Mitsubishi Mirage.
Additionally, the subscriptions to these systems are not cheap; and even if they were, the connectivity they advertise may be much easier to realize in well-groomed, well-wired, well-heeled enclaves than in the down-at-heels rural corners and neglected urban centers of those for whom an apple is still more noteworthy for its nutritional value than for its design sophistication.