IMAGE: Franck Boston — 123RF

Computers on wheels

There’s an interesting article in Ars Technica about the latest developments in automotive operating systems called “The state of the car computer: Forget horsepower, we want megahertz!” which looks at how a number of companies are now positioning themselves around platforms like Linux, Android, QNX as well, one assumes, Apple, in a complex process led by carmakers, with some even trying out several operating systems at the same time.

In many ways, cars are increasingly computers on wheels: a bunch of processors, memory, sensors and connectivity bringing to mind early mobile telephony or the computer itself, with multiple systems progressively converging around a few main players. At this early stage, we can already identify a number of strategies: manufacturer platforms such as QNX, an operating system using integrated or embedded systems and owned by BlackBerry since 2010, is based on the traditional approach of licensing and exclusive deals with manufacturers it owns. There is also Android, which is repeating its open platform approach raising very low entry barriers and that enjoys (relative) differentiation that manufacturers can use with few constraints. Meanwhile, Apple could go for complete control and its own development — something that does not seem likely right now — or an exclusive alliance with carmakers like Lexus.

Looking at the next major evolutionary step of cars gives us an idea of ​​what it means to work in an industry whose fundamental procedures are being altered, how brands need a strategic vision to give away a part of the control they once enjoyed over the manufacturing process. At the same time, cars are undergoing a digital transformation that involves becoming datacenters that interact with their owners, who in turn generate millions of bits of information every time they brake or step on the accelerator; meanwhile motor vehicles’ internal processes are being modified to allow them to analyze data, while companies are having to rethink their business models to become platforms in the value chain.

And all this in an environment where the wrong choice of operating system or strategic ally can mean long delays or losing customers, or worse, the likelihood that the customer of tomorrow is a very different animal, one with much more negotiating capacity, for example in a B2B scenario governed by a completely different business model. What happens when you don’t sell cars to families or drivers anymore, but to very large companies that manage humongous fleets of cars?

In this environment, every step requires blue sky thinking of the kind only a few brands will be able to carry out. Getting used to the idea that a brand’s ability to influence the ecosystem now depends on being an attractive partner for technology companies with no track record in the motor industry is not going to be easy for many companies.

At the moment, the deadlines set by most analysts for the enormous changes this industry will undoubtedly experience are very different to those the industry is talking about: 10 years in most cases. Waymo , Uber and other tech players see 2020 as the magic year when we will see autonomous vehicles on our roads, new ownership schemes and the end of the ICE age, the Internal Combustion Engine. In turn, most carmakers are talking instead about still selling gasoline or diesel powered cars up until 2030.

Very soon, a clearer picture will emerge, one with winners and losers. At the same time, the value of alliances will be seen. If you thought you were an expert or had accumulated experience in the automotive industry, think again: if you do not get in step with change, all that experience or knowledge could amount to nothing.

The car: a computer on wheels. There hasn’t been a more interesting time to work in the automotive industry.

(En español, aquí)