Carmakers and technology – thoughts from the New York Auto Show

I spent Wednesday in a couple of different car-related activities: first, I spent the morning getting an in-depth briefing with a handful of other analysts on Nokia subsidiary Here’s automotive activities and then spent a couple of hours at the New York International Auto Show. I did all this in the context of a connected car report I’m nearing completion on and which I referenced briefly in my last piece about this space, focused mostly on Apple’s CarPlay. Having spent some time on both of these activities, I wanted to share some views about where carmakers are in regard to technology, the significant shortcomings some of them still have, and also some of the unique advantages they have.

Carmakers as “metal-benders”

This unflattering term was used by one of the people I spoke to recently who works for a provider of technology that goes into cars and I think it reflects very well the mentality a lot of us have about carmakers’ potential with regard to technology.

We’ve all seen really poor in-car technology and it seems to reflect a deep-seated inability to understand what sort of experiences people expect today. But it also reflects extremely long development cycles at these carmakers. Another anecdote I heard was about a carmaker that had to make a decision about whether or not to include MySpace in its social technology options – the decision was made years ago, but the car in question only shipped this year. That’s emblematic of the challenges carmakers face when developing technology – it’s on a fundamentally different timeline from all the the other technology we use day in and day out, with frequent software and hardware refreshes, two year hardware upgrade cycles and big annual software releases for smartphones and so on.

What tends to flow from all this is really poor technology in cars. At the Auto Show, one of the experiences I tested was in an Audi, and I’ve embedded a brief video of it below. Remember, this is a premium automobile on display at one of the big auto shows. I suggest you have the sound on when you watch the video, because you’ll hear the clicks as I manipulate the dial that zooms the screen and you’ll notice the lag between the click and the response:

This is what many of us think of when we think of in-car technology and, I think partly for that reason, it was actually really tough to get demos of most of the tech at the New York Auto Show. The carmakers seem to feel there just isn’t that much to show off and the electronic displays next to cars at the show tend to show you the standard transmission options, trim levels and colors but say little about the technology. What they do say about the technology tends to be pretty generic – “navigation and smartphone syncing”, for example. It’s tempting to believe because of all this carmakers have no chance in bringing compelling technology to market, but that’s a huge generalization.

Carmakers getting things right

I did find a couple of examples of carmakers getting things right at the Auto Show and it’s worth talking about. Just as all smartphone makers are far from being the same, not all carmakers are the same, and some are producing far better in-car technology experiences than the Audi one I shared above. I don’t have video to show you, but I do have some screenshots, and the experiences these represent are a lot better. Two cars in particular I was impressed by were the Volvo XC90 and the Jaguar XF (which was announced at the show) – see the images below (the first is the Jaguar and the second is the Volvo):

Jaguar in-car display

IMG_7533 copy

These two user interfaces were much more fluid and intuitive than the Audi one, and felt way more smartphone-like in their usability than many of the other UIs on the market today. These two carmakers are getting at least some things right and they’re not the only ones. It’s telling to me these are both somewhat premium vehicles, and I suspect their makers are finally catching up with the reality of what in-car technology needs to be. Neither is perfect, but both are getting a lot closer.

Carmakers’ advantages

To take things even further, carmakers have a couple of other advantages in moving in-car technology forward which I think will make it tough for smartphone vendors to be more than just an add-on as they are today. The first is they control all the displays in the car, as I alluded to in the earlier piece. As the cluster display (behind the steering wheel) becomes another all-digital display rather than an analog one as in the past (something I saw quite a bit of at the Auto Show), it becomes an extension of the head unit display in the center console. As such, these two need to work tightly together and solutions like CarPlay and Android Auto in their current configurations can’t touch that cluster display.

But more importantly, for the advanced information and navigation services carmakers are starting to work on, information about the car itself and its state will become increasingly vital in producing the best possible experience, and neither Google nor Apple will have access to that information if the current approach to in-car technology continues. Here and other technology providers for the car are already starting to work on navigation which takes into account the particular characteristics of the car – its mass and weight distribution, how it consumes fuel, dimensions and so on – in determining not just the fastest route but the most fuel efficient and safest route, too. And they use information about the car in real time, such as fuel levels, to proactively find gas stations along the way when you don’t have enough fuel to get to your destination and selecting a location near your route with the lowest price. Today, using your smartphone to complete the same task would be possible, but it would require dipping in and out of several apps, something that is tough to do in the middle of your morning commute. A key concept at Here is that of every day driving — in other words, enhancing your drive along the routes you take all the time, where you don’t need voice-guided turn by turn navigation as much as you need proactive help with real time details such as refueling, parking availability, sharing your ETA with friends or coworkers and so on.

Much of that expanded vision of what users will want from their cars will be tough for smartphone makers alone to deliver. It will take deep integration between the carmaker, technology providers, a variety of data sources, and much more. Along with the issue of penetrating more than just the head-unit display, this is the other factor that makes me believe Apple and Google might need to go beyond their current in-car offerings to something more deeply integrated, or potentially to building cars themselves.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

31 thoughts on “Carmakers and technology – thoughts from the New York Auto Show”

  1. Jan,

    In the future, it seems that people would prefer buying cars with the same mobile compute interfaces – no one wants to have to ‘come up to speed’ because they traded in a Toyota for a BMW.

    Does this mean that eventually all mobile UIs will be standardized with no differentiation by make or model?

    I guess competition might be differentiated along the lines of newly introduced functionality, but if Apple adds this to BMWs: auto-pizza ordering w payments and just in time pickups derived from traffic conditions, route, and fuel tank levels, won’t this function be an easy upgrade away for all Toyotas?

    Is there a real issue here? Might some drivers prefer better compute functionality to better driving characteristics? Is this what Tim Cook’s team hopes for as they review their options in cars?

    Regarding Software Eating the World, what course of the meal are we on?

    1. The problem is that the carmakers do want to differentiate – they don’t want to just all offer the same thing, and they don’t want the loss of control that would come from handing it all over to an Apple or Google (they saw what happened in the music industry). So the point of this article (and my previous one) is that Apple simply can’t get at all the data they’d need to build equivalent functionality. Yes, drivers would like the same compute environment across all their devices, but if they can’t get that and all the functionality they want from these services, they’ll have to choose between them.

  2. I’m wondering if a car’s hardware will end up being abstracted the same way a computer’s hardware is. Our computers’ hardware is about as diverse as cars’ hardware, yet OSes and apps adapt to each of thousands variations via a layered bus-BIOS-Driver-API-toolchain architecture: your PC can read files off a HD, an SSD, USB, a CD/DVD/BR drive, Google Drive, Sharepoint… the same app can run on a phone, a tablet, a laptop, a desktop, a TV, a console, a watch… keyboards can be hundred of different layouts, or voice, or touch, or gamepads…
    Car IT could probably go that way, is probably going that way, which opens the door to modular systems whose sub-components can be mixed & matched across suppliers, manufacturers, product lines… and can evolve out of lockstep.

    1. In the case of Windows PCs, though, they’re all running the same OS, whereas in cars every maker has its own custom build on top of QNX, Windows Embedded etc. As such, others can’t build on top of them in the same way without permission and enablement from carmakers. Which they’re unlikely to provide because they see this is highly valuable and proprietary data.

      1. I think there are 2 distinct issues:
        On the technical side, the car’s power plant (for example) could be running any OS, same as a PC storage subsystem can be running any… thing (some run OSes, some microcode, some ASICs…), as long as there’s a bus/protocol/driver/toolchain for meshing that subsystem with others.
        On the commercial side, indeed, car makers are probably very loath to let any kind of data out. Same as MS doesn’t want any web site to be able to have full access to your PC nor Google, any Android app to be able to hijack your phone. So for that too, there are technical solutions, around user/app rights, sandboxing… it then becomes mostly a matter of commercial negotiation, or… of not negotiating anything, and letting Mobile providers know you’ve got such-and-such functionality available via such-and-such API, and any data returned is copyright BigCarCorp and can’t leave the cockpit, here’s the NDA+contract for our API’s access key. Contrary to us mere consumers, car makers do have leverage

      2. I think another analogy is payments and health: both of those are complex systems with valuable data. If a solution has been found for those, a solution can be found for cars ?

        1. In those cases, Apple has (so far) been content to stay away from the data side of things – it doesn’t see, collect, or store any of that data. Ditto CarPlay right now. But when the next use cases require not just seeing but analyzing and acting on that data, how well does that strategy play longer term?

  3. “The carmakers control all the displays in the car.”

    I don’t expect them to let go of that, anymore than they would give up control of anything else in their cars.

  4. Jan, Any word on when we may actually see Carplay or Android auto in cars we can buy on the lot? I need to purchase a new, but have have been holding out for CarPlay. Tim Cook said all major car companies will support CarPlay, but there is no info on which cars will have it, and when. So far, Hyundai is the only manufacturer I have seen that is promising a CarPlay upgrade, to the 2015 Sonata. I have emailed Hyundai, and they are not saying when CarPlay will be available, or if it will be added to the other models, such as the Genesis or Azera. I have emailed other car companies, and some say they are working on it, but none will say when, or if CarPlay or Android Auto will be added to their existing 2015 cars. Do you have any sense of why the delay? Is it the car manufacturers or Apple or Google that are holding it up?

  5. The main conceptual breakthrough that the original iPhone represented was the realization that physical buttons needed to be replaced by software. By doing this, with a large touch screen as an interface, the phone could function as a completely different device for each app.

    This is not a universally applicable epiphany. It revolutionized the phone because the phone was on the verge of having the capability of being many different devices. Physical buttons would have prevented that.

    Cars are fundamentally different. Many of their “apps” demand physical controls, and others greatly benefit from them, in ways that are not likely to change. They also have different constraints in terms of the physical size and form of the applicable interface surfaces.

    Besides just doing things badly, one mistake the manufacturers have made is to fail to realize this, replacing physical controls that make sense – buttons, dials and switches; in some cases even levers, such as for the hand brake (an important car-control mechanism in some situations) – with screen controls. This is a big step backwards.

    Likewise, information display is important. Gauges needn’t be physical, but should display information in the most efficient manner, which means traditional-style gauges or a visual representation thereof until something comes along that improves on them. A gauge gives more information than a numerical display, and can be read more easily, even relying on peripheral vision.

    Good, sensible design is not arbitrary. Physical controls and readouts should only be replaced by abstract equivalents when they represent an improvement.

  6. Jan,

    I enjoyed your article. I worked many years in the auto industry and have been following the tech industry just out of personal interest. I love when the two collide ;v)

    One thing you mentioned in your article (and I think it came up in the latest Techpinions podcast as well) was that auto makers were unlikely to share vehicle data with the Mobile device makers. You may already be aware of this, but just in case you aren’t, I wanted to point you to OBD II.

    Granted it would require some sort of Bluetooth dongle plugged (these are readily available) into your vehicle OBD II port, but there is a lot of realtime vehicle data provided through the OBD II port (required by US law on every US vehicle). It doesn’t provide every bit of information about the vehicle, but see the list in the Wikipedia entry

    I would be surprised if Apple or Google went the route of expecting customers to install a dongle on their car for full functionality, but it is a real option.

    You are probably correct, the auto manufactures are not going to just give up this data, but to some extent it is already freely available. In some sense, OBD II may be a relevant bargaining chip between Apple and an Auto OEM, ‘…Well, we’d rather not have to, but we can always get this data from the OBD II port….’

    I’m no expert in this area, but it is possible the CarPlay connection already has access to the CAN bus, which would mean Apple already has access to a lot of vehicle data (such as fuel level, etc.). And you are correct that the OEM’s definitely control out put to displays. OBD II (afaik) only requires sending data in response to P(arameter)ID requests.

    Great read, Thanks,

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