Most of us who watched Knight Rider as a kid expected that by 2011 we would be driving sleek, self-aware cars like KITT — cars that would take us seamlessly from A to B while cracking witty one-liners.
Though that future has not yet come to pass, things are starting to get exciting in the in-car technology space. Connected cars are hitting the consumer market in a price bracket that makes them a realistic option for many. One prediction sees “near saturation” in the U.S. market in as little as four years’ time.
“In terms of connected cars, we see the growth to be significant,” says Mark C. Boyadjis, a senior automotive analyst for IHS iSuppli. “Our forecasts for OEM Monitored, Telematics-enabled vehicles in 2010 sit at 4.5 million sales, with a heavy part of that coming from the U.S. and Western Europe, whereas this industry grows to 22.7 million by 2015.
“In 2015, however, there will be a much larger portion coming from China, Brazil, and Russia, as well as near saturation in developed markets like the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan.”
So what can we expect from these connected cars? We’ve spoken to a major motoring manufacturer, a futurist, an automotive analyst and other industry experts to find out.
1. Your Car as Your Credit Card
You may currently enjoy contactless payment at tolls via a smart card, but in the future we will see such cashless transactions extended to other areas of motoring, such as parking charges and fuel payments via embedded tech in your car.
Skymeter is one company developing products in this area. Its Financial GPS solution could offer wide-ranging changes to the way we pay for our driving.
“With Financial GPS, consumers can get one bill at the end of the month for every car-related cost: their parking, their insurance, their lease, their roads, even full repairs coverage,” saysKamal Hassan, CEO of Skymeter Corp.
“Everything would be paid automatically per minute or per mile, based on your actual driving and parking. Drivers could then control their costs. Not driving for a week would save you money on your lease, your insurance and even your municipal tax bill.”
We asked Hassan how far off such solutions are for the average consumer. “I believe we are two to three years away from seeing consumer cars with embedded Financial GPS units. GPS navigation units like Garmin started as aftermarket devices then moved into the car. Financial GPS will follow the same path.”
BMW meanwhile is working on a smart car key that, as well as controlling some in-car electronic functions, could be used for contactless payment. Just a prototype at this stage, BMW envisions your car key as your credit card as early as next year.
2. Your Garage as a Docking Station
Wi-Fi technology is the breakthrough addition to the connected car platform that’s going to make all the difference. While Bluetooth is great for in-car communications and streaming music, it’s cellular and Internet connectivity that truly puts the “connected” in connected car.
Ford has recently enhanced its Microsoft SYNC-based MyTouch system with Wi-Fi, meaning cars with the tech, such as the 2012 Ford Focus, can be turned into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.
We spoke to Jason Johnson, product development engineer at Ford, about why this is such a major development and what we can look forward to in the future. “We’re envisioning, for example, a web browser in the car for when you’re parked,” Johnson revealed, as well as the potential for easier platform updates.
“With Wi-Fi, imagine your parking garage is a docking station for your car, so overnight your car wakes up, SYNC wakes up and it grabs the latest software update via the Wi-Fi,” says Johnson. “So that’s the beauty of the connected car. Just like all your other mobile devices can get updated on the fly, why shouldn’t your car also be able to be updated that way?”
Although this OTA update concept is exciting for the entertainment and navigational aspects of cars, looking further into the future, just imagine how much more convenient it would be to fix software-based technical issues remotely via an update, rather than the current logistical nightmare a recall brings.
3. Voice Controls for Your Car
The connected car, typically with a touchscreen console, has one major flaw — it’s potentially dangerous to interact with while driving. The answer to this is voice control, in which you speak commands to the system.
Ford has employed voice recognition into its connected car platform and we asked Johnson about it.
“Voice control is now starting to become the primary interface in the car because it allows you to keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road and focus on the task of driving. Instead of picking up your iPhone and browsing through the music, you can just say ‘play artist,’ ‘play genre,’ ” Johnson explains.
But how capable is the voice recognition technology? Do you have to memorize a ton of unnatural commands? Ford’s system can currently understand 10,000 words — an impressive vocabulary for a car.
“What you’ll see from Ford is that we want to make device integration easier to use with voice control, and over time you’ll be able to have more of a natural conversation with the system,” says Johnson. “Over time you’ll be able to say ‘Hey SYNC I wanna listen to some jazz.’ ”
We also spoke to Nuance, the company that powers the voice recognition in Ford’s systems about what the future holds in this area.
“The connected car is the present and future. In the near future, drivers will be able to dictate messages or web searches from the convenience of their car — and the system will respond accurately,” Fátima Vital, senior marketing manager of automotive speech for Nuance told us.
“This functionality isn’t just for a select few either. More and more car manufacturers regard speech recognition is an indispensable feature. A J.D. Powers report shows that drivers with a speech-enabled navigation system record the most satisfaction with their cars. Hence the reason it is now available across a whole range of vehicle segments, from luxury cars to the smallest mass market vehicles. By 2020, expect the majority of the vehicles to have in-build speech recognition.”
And voice control is going to be important for convincing consumers about the safety of driving cars with such advanced dashboards. Garry Golden, lead futurist with NYC-basedFutureThink predicts this is one hurdle manufacturers could face.
“We will certainly be more social inside our cars and services such as OnStar and SYNC might serve as a buffer between friends, family and businesses. But as move towards a future where cars can command our attention as much as our cell phones, I expect to see a growing cultural backlash around this notion of distracted driving and inattentive drivers.”
4. Apps to Control Your Car
Currently a fledgling market, controlling certain functionality of your car via your cell phone will soon be commonplace for new car owners.
BMW, Ford, GM and Volvo have already dipped their toes into the water as far as companion apps for your car go, with some more advanced options offering the ability to remotely unlock the car, start the car and sound the horn, all from a distance. The number of such apps is expected to grow significantly over the next few years.
“From the consumer’s point of view, the connected vehicle will be largely accessible via the computer and smartphone. Application integration is growing vastly as OEMs put their daily relevance in the pocket of their buyers. OEMs are making apps for owners manuals, telematics remote controls, new location-based information, plus integrating those existing entertainment apps like iheartradio, radiotime, Slacker, and Pandora,” says IHS iSuppli automotive analyst Boyadji.
While the current crop of apps work on the driver activating the controls, Golden sees the future of this area in proximity-based sensors and related automation.
“Most operations inside the vehicle are being brought onto the web and will be controllable by secured devices. But the real innovations will be those automated systems based on machine-to-machine interfaces that eliminate the need for human commands,” Golden explains.
“As you walk towards the car, your phone will adjust temperature, turn on the music and unlock the door as you step closer.”
As the engineering specifications of rival car models get more and more in line with each other, we’re sure that consumers will be increasingly likely to take into account the car’s connected platforms before making purchasing decisions.
Each manufacturer needs to push to make its platform the leading option for the connected consumer, because as Johnson demonstrates, each manufacturer’s system will be exclusive to the brand, and in competition with its rivals.
“The unique thing about SYNC is that it’s a Ford creation, what makes SYNC is SYNC,” says Johnson. “It’s just not something you could go to another parts supplier and say ‘Hey, give me SYNC.’ ”
In the same way that consumers develop preferences for computer or cell phone operating systems, always sticking to iOS or Android, for example, we think as consumers get used to in-car connectivity platforms, they will want to stick to the same platform with future purchases.
This means that the car company that gets it right at this early stage is set to benefit greatly. As Golden says, “If the battle of the 20th century was Ford versus General Motors, the next century might be Ford SYNC vs. GM OnStar.”