Road safety and 100 other uses for the connected vehicle

The fatal car crash involving the much loved South African government Minister Collins Chabane again brought the country’s poor road safety record into prominence. To overcome these and many other driving and transportation challenges, connected vehicles may offer part of the solution — combine built-in intelligence with sensor-obtained data about the driver, vehicle and environment, offering accident avoidance capabilities that exceed those of humans.

There are also multiple commercial opportunities beyond safety. We see evidence of the arrival of the connected vehicle with exciting announcements from BMW, Audi, GM and the flurry of announcements from Google, Apple and Microsoft.

So what is the state of play and where are we headed?

The activity is three-fold: while high-profile car launches are getting all the press and amazing industry applications are inspiring analysts, tech vendors are getting on with the real business of CVs — building the platforms ‘driving’ the connected vehicles of the future. Microsoft has come up with Windows Embedded Automotive 7, Google recently inked the Open Automotive Alliance and Apple is out with Carplay.

Let’s start off with the consumer glam play that is the i8 (underpinned by BMW’s ConnectedDrive concept) and the work being done by Fiat on services for its Uconnect platform.

Visa demoed an in-vehicle take-out ordering solution at Mobile World Congress 2015. But don’t be fooled. Humming underneath the hood is a mobile and online purchasing engine with enormous potential beyond take-out — for example as a bridging technology between highway booth tolls and urban e-tolling.

It doesn’t really matter — the important part is the collaboration platform. It is built and people will appify. But for the record, there are many compelling connected car solutions. Wired notes a large, growing market in infotainment (e.g. Pandora music streaming partnerships with car radio manufacturers), car apps (too many to single out), digital drive diagnostics (measuring, for example, fuel efficiencies and engine performance), monitoring services for learner drivers (delivering safety insights) and enhanced navigation systems (such as Waze). It is a market estimated to grow to nearly $270 billion by 2020.

South Africa leads with ‘black box’ application innovations due to high vehicle crime. Competition in the field has led to differentiation in the form of applications for tax log books, insurance, post-accident analysis etc. On that note, the negative safety aspect of in-vehicle Internet and app use is hampering uptake and drawing considerable attention to interface technologies such as speech recognition and synthesis that will help drivers keep their eyes on the road.

Then there are the industrial applications. I’ll note one truly impressive example — mining group Rio Tinto implemented autonomous monster trucks that have hauled more than 200 million tons of mining materials over more than 4 million kilometres since 2013.

Lastly, as alluded to in both the consumer and industrial discussions, a platform(enabled by the Internet and Cloud based technology in most cases) is what powers in-vehicle experiences and automation of industry tasks. An in-car experience is not just about navigating, but about gathering data about the driver behaviour, preferences, biases, etc. and using it to improve the experience or enabling other services on the platform. Rio Tinto’s trucks are not just pack horses. They have over 200 sensors, integrating with wireless mesh networks in mines, navigating mine roads using a combination of radar and GPS systems, and synchronising with other digging, drilling, and surface hauling equipment. Each machine generates a tremendous amount of data — which the mine analyses and presents to operators thousands of kilometers away.

It’s all about the data, who owns it, and what can be done with it to benefit platform tenants’ contribution to the platform’s stickiness.

Connected car services company Airbiquity hosts such a platform in the cloud, connecting a partner ecosystem of automotive OEMs (e.g. Nissan), hardware suppliers (e.g. Bosch and Panasonic), mobile network operators (e.g. AT&T), call centers (e.g. OnStar) and content providers (e.g. Facebook). Together, the partners deliver in-vehicle innovation to always-on drivers, but the principle goes for industrial applications too.

It’s everything a good cloud platform should be, offering connectivity, mobile device integration, platform services (subscriber management, application management, business intelligence (BI), integrated user interface etc), content delivery and B2C marketing.

But who are the leading players? The main duellists are the tech companies and the incumbent OEMs.

Alliances are forming and the race is on for the connected vehicle platforms that will allow for new generation services that separate the champions from those they leave behind in their dust.

Place your bets and buckle up!