The Best Automotive Tech Opportunity? Make Existing Cars Smarter

Everyone, it seems, is excited about the opportunity offered by smart and connected cars. Auto companies, tech companies, component makers, Wall Street, the tech press, and enthusiasts of all types get frothy at the mouth whenever the subject comes up.

The problem is, most are only really excited about a small percentage of the overall automobile market: new cars. In fact, most of the attention is being placed on an arguably even smaller and unquestionably less certain portion of the market: future car purchases from model year 2020 and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m excited about the capabilities that future cars will have as well. However, there seems to be a much larger opportunity to bring smarter technology to the hundreds of millions of existing cars.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, quite a few companies have announced products and services designed to make our existing cars a bit smarter and technically better equipped. Google, T-Mobile, and several lesser-known startups are beginning to offer products and services designed to bring more intelligence to today’s car owners.

While there hasn’t been as much focus on this add-on area, I believe it’s poised for some real growth, particularly because of actual consumer demand. Based on recent research completed by TECHnalysis Research and others, several of the capabilities that consumers want in their cars are relatively straightforward. Better infotainment systems and in-car WiFi, for example, are two of the most desired auto features, and they can be provided relatively easily via add-on products.[pullquote]I’m excited about the capabilities that future cars will have, but there seems to be a much larger opportunity to bring smarter technology to the hundreds of millions of existing cars.”[/pullquote]

On the other hand, while fully autonomous driving may be sexy for some, the truth is, most consumers don’t want that yet. As a result, there isn’t going to be a huge demand for what would undoubtedly be difficult to do in an add-on fashion (though that isn’t stopping some high-profile startups from trying to create them anyway…but that’s a story for a different day).

In the case of Google, the company’s new Android Auto app puts any Lollipop (Android 5.0)-equipped or later Android phone into an auto-friendly mode that replicates the new in-car Android Auto interface. The screen becomes simplified, type and logos get bigger, options become more limited (though more focused), and end users start to get a feel for what an integrated Android Auto experience would be like—but in their current car.

The quality of the real-world experience will take some time to fully evaluate, but the idea is so simple and so clever that you have to wonder when Apple will offer their own variation for CarPlay (and maybe why they didn’t do it first…).

T-Mobile partnered with Chinese hardware maker ZTE and auto tech software company Mojio to provide an in-car WiFi experience called SyncUP DRIVE that leverages an OBD-II port dongle device that you plug into your car (most cars built since 1996). While several other carriers offer OBD-II dongles for no cost (you do have to pay for a data plan in all cases), the new T-Mo offering combines the WiFi hotspot feature with automotive diagnostics in a single device thanks to the Mojio-developed app.

Several startups I’ve come across also have other types of in-car tech add-ons in the works, many of which are focused on safety-applications. I’m expecting to see many compute-enabled cameras, radar, and perhaps even lidar-equipped advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) add-ons at next year’s CES show, some of which will likely bring basic levels of autonomy to existing cars. The challenge is, the more advanced versions of these solutions need to be built for specific car models, which will obviously limit their potential market impact.

Car tech is clearly an exciting field and it’s no surprise to anyone that it’s becoming an increasingly important purchase factor, particularly for new cars. However, it may surprise some to know that the in-car tech experiences still lag the primary car purchase motivators of price, car type, looks, performance, etc. In that light, giving consumers the ability to add-on these capabilities without having to purchase a whole new car, seems to make a lot of sense—especially given the roughly decade-long lifetime for the average car.

Obviously, add-ons can’t possibly provide the same level of capabilities that a grounds-up design can bring, but many consumers would be very happy to bring some of the key capabilities that new cars offer into existing models. It’s going to be an exciting field to watch.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

4 thoughts on “The Best Automotive Tech Opportunity? Make Existing Cars Smarter”

  1. A few OEMs have been offering that feature for a while. My past Huaweis had a “car” interface I could switch to at any time. I don’t think my current Xiaomi does though.

    There are also several similar apps in the PlayStore, either as apps or as Launchers (which is nothing but another app, really, a bit more of a pain to switch out of). It’s nice it’s getting built in, but informed users have had the option for years. I’d say it’s the same-ol’ pattern of Android’s flexibility allowing nice features ahead of GApple getting a clue ;-p

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