What the connected car WON’T look like

Value will be in providing convenience, not just party tricks


We are entering an era of the connected car. Does that mean that every car will be sold with its own Wifi hotspot? And what will you do with that hotspot while you’re driving? Watch Youtube videos on an in-dash screen? Yikes. Please don’t.

Audi’s CES2015 demo (Photo courtesy of Bloomberg / Michael Nagle)

Per Bloomberg: “At this year’s CES, 10 major automakers showed off their latest in-car electronics and self-driving prototypes in sprawling exhibitions that together took up the space of about three football fields. Consulting firm Accenture (ACN) reports that technology is the top selling point for 39% of U.S. car buyers, almost triple the 14% who care most about horsepower and handling. The industry has taken notice, trying to rebrand cars as jumbo smartphones that are stuffed with apps and can be accessed remotely via other devices.”

Ford’s CEO Mark Fields delivering the CES2015 Keynote
“We’re thinking of ourselves as a mobility company and not only a car and truck company,” says Fields, now Ford’s chief executive officer. “We want to be viewed as being part of this community.”

But is that what car buyers want? To drive a smartphone on wheels? No thanks. 70% of Americans already have smartphones and 79% of us check them every morning within 15 minutes of waking up. We love our phones. We don’t need our car to be another smartphone.

As we enter this early experimentation stage of the connected car, I’ll offer a few examples of what the connected car will NOT look like.

It won’t be a “Fitbit for your car”

Early connected car products have been nothing more than party tricks. You can download an app that picks up diagnostic data about your car. But so what? It’s just going to send you an alert when you’re low on gas. Your car’s gas light already does that pretty well.

So what value does an app for you car have? It may help you diagnose an error code when your car breaks down, but that doesn’t happen very often. And what would you do with that app while you’re driving? At any given moment in the US, 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, which is super dangerous. (According to Distraction.gov) So keep your smartphone in your pocket.

Fitbit: the leader in the quantified self market

Sure, a “Fitbit for my car” could help me track my driving behavior, remind me to not brake so hard, nag me for driving too fast, and even tell me when to change my oil, but none of these are compelling enough reasons to get one.

Silly rabbit, Fitbits are for people.

It won’t be a remote control app

The Tesla smartphone app is super slick. It lets you start your Tesla remotely, turn on the heat, check your car battery charge, and locate your car in a parking lot. But the winners in the “Internet of Things” space will be much more than simple remote control apps. These are fun features but they are not why you would buy a Tesla.

Take the Nest smart thermostat as example of a widely adopted smart device. Simply set your thermometer and go about your life as you normally would. The Wifi connected system tracks your daily behavior and makes energy saving decisions on your behalf. Yes, the smartphone app adds value, but it is optional and not compelling on its own. The core value is in the system’s ability to detect motion and adjust the heat settings autonomously — saving you money in the long run, without you having to do anything.

It won’t be more screens

Will our futuristic cars look like airplane cockpits?

The dashboard is already too busy — it’s lit up like an airplane cockpit. Instead of adding mounted screens and 17” Tesla-like monitors, all signs point to simplifying the dashboard to paring back the interactive driving experience, not complicating it. Less knobs, less screens. Safety has to be a top consideration in all new car technology. A mantra for the connected car movement could be

“Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel. Smartphone in pocket.”
Hey look, an iPhone embedded in my dashboard

Mirroring your smartphone in dash is not a compelling user experience. Apple Carplay and Android Auto are experimenting with duplicating the iPhone or Android smartphone experience via yet another, larger, in-dash screen that displays all your favorite apps. Permanently installing Apple or Android into the dash of a car will be too much of a commitment for the car buyer. What if the next owner of that car doesn’t use the same platform? What if the driver wants to switch platforms, or what if a family that shares a car owns a variety of smartphone types?

Here’s what an Internet-enhanced driving experience looks like

James Bond is ready for his connected car

Set it and forget it installation

The future of the connected car will be very much like the Bluetooth hands-free experience. Simply get in your car, keep your phone in your pocket, and drive safely as you normally would. The paired relationship between your phone and your car enables an enhanced, safer phone experience leveraging the built-in microphone and speakers of your car. And its universal. Any car that support Bluetooth pairing can pair with any phone on any operating system. There is no in-dash screen to look at, no complicated buttons or knobs to tinker with, and no manual connection to make each time you enter and exit the car.

Good advice from Rehabstudio:

“More learning, less interface. The best IoT products should monitor, learn from and adapt to our behavior with quiet attentiveness and a level of autonomy. Devices that we almost never need to program or even touch, that’s the aim.”

Imagine your smart car device detecting a potential problem and assisting you in scheduling your car for service at your favorite auto shop. That’s an additional layer of value that reduces the hardship of owning and maintaining a car. Reducing friction in day-to-day tasks is innovation in itself.

Personalized assistance

The core question for the connected car movement is how can the Internet help you while you’re driving? Ideally the Internet would do heavy lifting for you so you can keep your eyes on the road.

The goal is convenience based on intelligence and connectivity.

Let’s say you are approaching a Safeway and your smart car device is smart enough to know your wife put a few grocery items on the shared grocery list earlier today. Your smart car device would gracefully suggest that you stop at Safeway since it’s on your way home. Your smart car device would know who’s driving, your preferred routes, and your preferred locations — all without you ever having to program it. It would know that you prefer Peet’s to Starbuck’s based on past visits. The learning engine would tailor your driving experience without any additional interaction. That’s convenience.

Agnostic: Any car, any phone

One of the biggest problems with the connected car movement is the complexity of the automotive ecosystem. Each car manufacturers has their own hard-wired in-dash system, and each device vendor wants to own the experience.

Just like in the case of the Bluetooth hands-free experience, car manufacturers need to get out of the way of the connect car movement, not drive it.

As of February 2015 its too early to predict how the connected car landscape will shake out, but winning solutions have to be easy to understand, easy to purchase, easy to install, and reduce complexity while requiring minimal interaction. And they have to learn about you and do work for you while being agnostic to your car or smartphone platform of choice.