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How technology is changing the car buying and driving experiences.

This month I am in the process of buying a new car — for the first time in over a decade. I travel so much for business that I actually don’t drive my own vehicles a lot — I have many more miles in rental cars in a year than I do in my own. So I tend to buy a new car infrequently, load it up with options, pay cash (or get the best incentive financing deal available and pay it off immediately), and own it for a long time. As it happens, the last time I bought a new car was 2003.

Frequent rentals give you a sense of how the mainstream automotive platform is evolving (better navigation and entertainment displays) but the rental companies don’t load everything on their cars and in any event you only have a few minutes to get familiar with the essential controls and that limits what you can figure out how to do — at least it does for me.

So when I went into the dealership recently for a look at what I wanted to buy (the brand doesn’t matter, any mid to premium brand would have been roughly the same) I was amazed at what you now get in a car. Here are some of the things that have made it into the platform in the last decade.

Personalization. My old vehicles let you set up the driver’s seat and mirrors and then “remember” the position for up to three drivers, so I could select my settings by pushing a button. So does the new one — and the first two memories are tied to a specific (RFID-enabled) key so that just approaching the car and unlocking the door selects the correct settings. And the personalization extends beyond seats and mirrors to things like radio channel favorites, playlists, and various environmental settings.

Remote everything. I can unlock the car door with the key or by touching a spot on the door handle (as long as the key is close by). Or from an app on my phone (which also can turn on the heated seats or air conditioner and open or close the sun roof).

Phone integration. That app on my phone ties into the telematics system on the vehicle, so I can see how much gas I have, what mileage I have been getting, and how far I can drive on the available fuel — and, if I want, where the nearest gas stations are for refueling and what they are charging for gas.

And if I want to use my phone as a phone, I have Bluetooth and USB integration options that make my contacts available to the vehicle’s onboard display, so I can scroll through it, use a search function, or use voice commands to make or answer a call. The system is hands free for making and receiving calls and has speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities for texts and emails. I can pair two different phones with the vehicle and the active phone can be tied to the driver via the key.

Driver assistance now includes selectable sport, comfort, and eco modes; heads-up display for current speed and local speed limit (where available); intelligent cruise control; multi-view navigation (so a map and a driver’s POV are displayed side by side); and spoken directions, with the next turn icons integrated into the heads-up display so I don’t have to glance at the display panel.

Multiple external cameras, IR sensors, and (optional) laser/radar sensors provide external views for reversing (including a very useful 180 degrees rear view). There is also parking assist, lane and distance keeping and alerts, and a synthetic vehicle view from above. There’s also an emergency contact service using built in cellular connections that can also access the vehicle’s telemetry and detect various bad events, such as airbag deployment and excess levels of acceleration and deceleration.

All this (and I’ve probably forgotten a few additional things) for essentially the same price I paid for an equivalent vehicle 12 years ago.

The user interface isn’t perfect, at least it isn’t for me. In addition, I wonder if keeping track of the user-linked keys might be an issue with three drivers in the family and the keys looking identical. There are so many features that the test drive needed nearly 45 minutes of “instruction and awareness” before I actually got to drive the car! The dealership gives you several free one-hour lessons with their in-house experts over a period of several months to let you assimilate all the features without getting overloaded. I hope it works.

I also wonder where all this is going over the next 10 years. How reliable does the software that makes all this work have to be? Will periodic updates be needed and if so how will this be possible? Is the hardware modular enough to be swapped out for next-generation upgrades? How can the manufacturers reduce the learning curve within and between vehicles and across brands?

Effective voice control is clearly essential — all the control twiddling, menu scrolling, and “finger writing” symbol recognition is fine when you’re stationary, but I’m not sure I want to be doing that at highway speed or in traffic. More automation also looks inevitable as the driver assistance suite gets more sophisticated. Whether or not you think fully automated autonomous driving systems are coming, this is an area where I can see a lot of potential for improved safety and performance.

Perhaps what was most intriguing were the opportunities for tying the vehicle (representing physical mobility) to the phone (representing information mobility). The apps are already pretty slick, but at the same time, fairly basic — they haven’t yet made the full leap to a “natural” integration with the vehicle, especially for the driver. As much as they are mobile-device centric (and generally they are) the device they center on is the phone, not the vehicle or some level of vehicle/phone combination.

That probably needs to change. In particular, integration with vehicle-oriented commerce needs to be easier and more intuitive and a level of “situational awareness” — why am I in the vehicle and how can information mobility help me – needs to be developed and integrated.

Yet as a glimpse of what could be possible, all these features got me thinking. The early stages of a new platform technology are often a simple reimplementation of what already exists — think of early TV as “radio with pictures.” That happens because the innovators haven’t fully explored many of the “out of the box” or even “are you out of your mind?” possibilities as yet. That’s where I feel we are today with the intersection of two important dimensions of personal mobility. As innovation continues, this could get really interesting.

The downside? I’m probably not going to be able to stretch my new vehicle for a decade this time, unless the upgrade path, particular for the hardware platforms, is easier than I think.

About the Author
John Parkinson

John Parkinson is an Affiliate Partner at Waterstone. John brings extensive experience to the topics of technology strategy, architecture and execution having served in both senior operating and advisory roles.