Illustration by Alexis Marcou
Every day, as they drive between Palo Alto and San Francisco on Highway 101, thousands of Silicon Valley commuters drive right past next-generation technology. Very few of them ever notice the tiny sensors embedded in the pavement and mounted along the road. These sensors are designed to track the speed of passing vehicles and measure traffic congestion. They’re watching, in a sense, how often vehicles switch lanes.
Right now, the goal of such technology is to increase driver safety along San Francisco–area highways. But in a few years, these sensors could become part of a broader network that supports self-driving cars as they navigate highways and city streets. If that happens, how we interact with our dashboards, in-car entertainment systems, steering wheels, and even the driving environment itself will undergo a serious transformation.
Once we get more comfortable with taking our hands off the wheel and letting autonomous systems take over, we will start to think of our cars less as vehicles and more as pods for multiple users: families owning and sharing a single car, or self-driving vehicles operating through ride-sharing services. It could even be something else entirely.
“Your car is becoming a node in the Intelligence of Things™—a very well-defined and well-secured node,” says Kent Helfrich, VP and CTO of the automotive division at Flex.
The reinvention of the automobile into a connected car represents a shift unparalleled since Henry Ford perfected the assembly line, which put thousands of identical black gas buggies on newly built roads and changed the course of American culture. And unlike before, this automotive revolution that’s happening now isn’t defined by distinctive whiz-bang exteriors.
The data generated by a car is amazingly valuable. And soon, there will be even more cameras everywhere scanning for parking spaces, for example, so you can lease out your unused parking spot, Helfrich says.
“People will be able to customize the connected car in terms of the apps they choose,” says Ronald Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for auto-resource site Edmunds.com. “The user interface is likely to change as well, depending on whether they have an Android or Apple phone, but the infotainment screen still has to be functional, so you can’t get too crazy with the design. Down the line, you’re likely to see personalized profiles with individual settings for each driver.”
On the outside, however, expect a trend toward uniformity. “There will be some degree of personalization in the future, but not to the extent of exterior upgrades,” Montoya adds.
The in-vehicle driving experience has never felt more individualized, thanks to in-car sensors that interface with the highway, high-tech smart fabrics, and new smartphone interactions. That shift is driven by data.
“The data generated by a car is amazingly valuable,” Helfrich says. “And soon, there will be even more cameras everywhere scanning for parking spaces, for example, so you can lease out your unused parking spot.”
These and other technologies are not only making commutes safer and the act of driving easier and more enjoyable, they’re transforming the idea of the car itself—from a uniquely shaped piece of hardware to an updatable, mobile bundle of software that’s a living extension of ourselves. And, just as our bodies are composed of complex systems working in unison to keep us going, so too is the car of the future.
The Heart Monitor
Personalization is beginning at the most inconspicuous, anonymous place in your car: the OBD-II port. Usually located near the steering wheel, this onboard diagnostic port that automotive shops insert repair devices into is now being used by many device makers to turn cars made after 1996, the year OBD-II ports became a required standard, into connected vehicles. Companies including telecom giant Verizon, the auto insurers Progressive and Metromile, and dedicated IoT auto companies such as Vinli and Automatic are manufacturing their own dongles that plug into the port. These small plug-ins connect with mobile applications to give drivers information about their vehicles in real time.
Some of this information can be extremely helpful in the short term. For example, when a car is parked in a crowded lot, GPS integration via an accompanying app can help the driver locate his vehicle right away. Other features—such as early alerts to technical issues and metrics on fuel efficiency and driving habits—promise to improve driver safety and help owners stay up-to-date on their car’s maintenance. OBD-II dongles are the gateway to connected cars. Most can be purchased for around $50, and take seconds to install. Think of them as a way for drivers to listen in on the conversation the many components of their car are having.
The Eyes and Ears
There are seemingly invisible sensors inside your car that see and hear on your behalf. More and more, new vehicles come with a variety of radar and lidar sensors that interact with other cars and the highway itself. Helfrich notes that vehicles are using a variety of communication mechanisms to speak with one another independently, what he calls a fourth link beyond Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and LTE. “We are making these [mechanisms] smaller and more power-efficient than ever before, which makes it easier to integrate at a low cost into any vehicle,” he says.
The power of these new sensors have been covered in recent automotive news. In 2016, 20 automakers including BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen pledged a commitment to implement automatic emergency-braking technology in their vehicles by 2022. This capability is made possible through “sensor fusion” technology that combines radar sensors and cameras to prevent collisions with pedestrians, other vehicles, and animals on the road. Chrysler already introduced a version of this active safety technology, called the Full-Speed Forward Collision Warning-Plus system, in 2014.
Radar and lidar provide drivers with an entirely different sensory experience from traditional, non-technology-assisted driving that is far more useful and personal than a flashy exterior.
Car exteriors might look unremarkable, especially compared to the exuberant designs of the 1950s and beyond, but the technological capabilities under the hood are changing wildly. And this is where passengers’ unique personalities will be fully expressed. Connected solutions from vendors such as Sierra Wireless are altering the way we interact with our vehicles through touch screens and apps. The idea is to create a seamless experience that merges the driver’s mobile phone with the car’s center stack, the area for traditional radio and temperature settings.
Last year, Sierra Wireless announced an expansion of its relationship with PSA Peugeot Citroën to directly integrate driver-safety-promoting apps and services with their cars by way of device-to-cloud technology. Since an earlier version of the technology was launched in 2003, connected cars automatically sent more than 13,000 safety alerts to emergency services in 17 different European countries. Beyond safety, the automaker is looking at technology that would allow their connected cars to communicate with smart home appliances.
Even the traditional center column is changing rapidly as a result of smartphone integration. Google’s Android Auto platform and Apple’s CarPlay are finding their way into cars through partnerships with automakers, replacing physical knobs and buttons with smooth user interfaces that work from a smartphone. In CarPlay’s latest iteration, for instance, Siri voice control is available throughout the car at the press of a button, and the touch-screen interface is modeled after the iPhone’s. Apple Maps replaces the stock GPS product and, crucially, allows commuters to dictate emails and listen to messages read back to them while driving to work.
Yet, the center stack, even as it becomes one big touch screen, still controls the familiar air and radio settings in a manner that first rose to prominence in the 1950s. Even on a Tesla, the center stack layout looks partially recognizable. In the future, Helfrich thinks it’s increasingly likely that automakers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will have to find a balance between displaying more information and keeping a familiar center-column layout that drivers are used to. Tech companies such as Alibaba, Apple, Baidu, and Google can expect a heated competition to get their proprietary formats in as many automobiles as possible worldwide—a drag race to become the face of intelligent, connected cars.
But even as cars become more connected, some design elements will remain the same. “I believe that dials and buttons still have a place in the vehicle,” says Edmunds.com’s Montoya, although he recognizes the trend toward tablet-style infotainment screens. “It is more efficient and less distracting to turn a dial than it is to find and press a virtual button.”
Helfrich also expects the advent of new materials that will completely change how we interact with cars. Automakers and OEMs are experimenting with interactive doors and touch-sensitive smart fabrics, although these innovations are a long way from production. BMW is working on soft polymer-based fabrics with electrical qualities that can be used to, say, adjust the volume of the radio or turn on air conditioning. In 2011, Toyota debuted the Fun-Vii, an interactive proof-of-concept car that functions as a “mobile mood ring” by allowing drivers to display changing images and patterns on the car’s side exterior.
Imagine a world where, thanks to new materials, drivers and passengers can practically mind-meld with vehicles. It’s a future that looks increasingly likely, thanks to the advancements in materials science being made today.
Another radical shift has to do with battery improvement. To allow for the era of the connected car, current models must transition from 12-volt batteries to 48-volt. Flex, which is actively working in this space, sees the switch as a stepping stone to technological innovation. These 48-volt batteries, which leverage the tech common in electric cars, allow automakers to include much more telematics and electronic features and services. Although bulky in the past, the battery configuration has been shrinking in size, and is now much easier and more efficient to install inside automobiles.
The 48-volt configurations will lead to other new technological advances within the car. Technology market research firm IDTechEx notes that startup Levant Power, for instance, is developing an energy-harvesting active suspension that generates electricity from the car and will be fully compatible with 48-volt systems—meaning much less gas is used on the road. Other benefits include substantially increased range for electric cars, faster acceleration in conventional and hybrid vehicles, and the ability to integrate many more electronics into the car.
Several companies have been looking at self-cleaning windshields, which 48-volt batteries make possible. Using ultrasonics and heating, researchers at McLaren Automotive have been able to make considerable progress in a solution that would automatically remove debris and smears from the surface.
A New Connected Habitat
These changes aren’t just taking place in our cars. They’re taking place in the fleets that fuel the world’s public transportation systems, as well as the commercial shipping infrastructure. Commercial trucking has become the testing ground where transformative technologies for cars and SUVs are being perfected.
Elementum, a Flex startup that offers supply-chain-management software, uses data from in-vehicle sensors and other sources to quickly generate real-time insights from the global supply chain. Its interpretations of data and data representation models allow users to better manage vehicles en masse, and radically cut the cost of trucking commodities from point A to point B.
This sensor-centric solution provides a real-time view of every route and shipment in a company’s supply chain, information about individual route segments, alerts to upcoming travel bottlenecks, and current delay times.
This will save money for all the customers down the supply chain and alert them to potential problems more quickly. That information on commodity location will be available, thanks to connected vehicles, to everyone from factory operators to retailers to hedge fund managers.
Sensors also improve the jobs of truckers who move freight across the country, the majority of whom are independent contractors. While they may be resistant to increased tracking, the insights Elementum offers could help truckers manage their time on the road more efficiently, letting them take on more jobs and receive bigger paychecks. Leveraging the sensors of a truck for an IoT data analysis solution also means fewer fees paid to third-party information services.
This data revolution will affect nearly every driver on the road. The popular mapping app Waze crowdsources traffic conditions from thousands of users at a time and is even used by city governments to help prioritize which potholes or broken traffic lights to repair. At last year’s Connected Car Expo in Los Angeles, attendees saw cars perform real-time object detection, a steering wheel that detects alcohol in a driver’s hand and automatically locks, and even a vehicle that uses laser sensors to predict the behavior of nearby vehicles on the highway.
Safety in commercial trucking has been improving for years, in part because of these connected driving solutions. The same will be said for the rest of us. In a monumental shift, drivers will begin to trust their vehicles to make life-or-death decisions. The sensor revolution already under way will allow for safer roads, more comfortable vehicles, and fewer distracted drivers. It will create more opportunities for OEMs and the companies and partners that supply them. It will lead to more affordable prices for consumers. And ultimately such connectivity will usher in a new era in which the status of a car is determined less by its outward appearance. In the future, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.