Car as a Platform

A fuel economy on the order of 25 mpg, an engine capable of running gasoline, kerosene or ethanol, the throttle is controlled with a lever on the steering wheel and a suspension system that can cope with extreme off road terrain. Those specifications sound like those of a modern car- yet they are some of the features of the Ford Model T. Of course the Model T had a 2.9L engine producing 20hp and an arduous transmission system, but it still remains that the core technology system of cars - as developed and improved by Henry Ford - is still present in most cars on the road today.

The cars have come a long way since the Model T sparked the automotive industry in the US, but the use case of cars and the core technology involving the fossil fuel powered engine has not. The latter is seeing change with the increased use of hybrid engines and the fully battery powered vehicles hitting the market and gaining popularity — and with improved sensory, software and computational power — we are on the verge of seeing fully autonomous self-driving cars being introduced to the general population. Not only does this bring new freedoms to each individual but it also changes the car’s raison d’être.

Imagine a device that features several computer subsystems, at least one of which offers supercomputer-level performance, the highest end GPUs, multiple large size, high-resolution displays, surround sound-enabled high resolution audio, integrated 4G connectivity, multiple function-specific controllers, voice and touch-based modes of input, a dedicated connectivity bus for internal communications between subsystems, millimeter-level location and mapping accuracy, multiple high-resolution camera inputs, and a high-level operating system that can even virtualize guest OS’s. Throw in the growth of parking sensors, traffic monitors, and other metropolitan-focused IoT infrastructure elements, and you can imagine cars as the “client” in the network of a smart city. That’s network and cloud-based computing on a whole new frontier.

While the majority of all the computing power will be used by car manufacturers for the car’s internal systems — it will be exciting to see what will happen once developers get their hands on this new platform. I doubt that when the Nokia 9210 Communicator came to market anybody could have predicted how much impact smart phones would have. Even with the first iPhone, it’s potential to change our everyday lives was underestimated. Only once Apple unleashed the developers did the smartphone live up to its full potential.

What will be the car’s killer app? How will companies use all this new data for marketing purposes? How will the car’s hardware change to adapt to its new role? How will cities adapt to this new platform?

Some companies more than others are already poised to take advantage of this new platform and ecosystem.

Self-driving cars combined with Uber-style on-demand services make individual car ownership less and less attractive. Some people even claim that hardware-as-a-service is the end game for Tesla. The shared usage models will turn the car market into something that looks like a public transport platform, where operators will match in real-time the demand for transportation with the location and the capacity of self-driving vehicles. In other words, fleet guidance is about deciding in real-time where every car needs to go. UberPool helps the company to build capabilities that will be directly relevant for the optimal routing of large autonomous fleets.

Navigation will remain at the heart of the car, Google is a clear leader here with Google Maps and Waze. A consortium of German carmakers (Audi, BMW and Daimler) is trying to uphold an alternative acquiring the Here Maps business from Nokia in August 2015 for $3.1 Billion. It will be interesting to see how tech giants will go head to head against car manufactures on this new platform battlefield- much like internet and PC companies went up against the (at the time) largest phone manufacturers.

It’s still too early in the game to say which features and companies will dominate the future transportation market. One thing is a safe bet: The future transportation ecosystem will look very different from the existing automotive industry. It will resemble modern technology ecosystems with their platform business models, permission-less innovation by developers, and domination of software-centric companies.