The Automobile As A Consumer Mobile Frontier

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Editor’s Note: Semil Shah works on product for Swell, is a TechCrunch columnist, and an investor. He blogs at Haywire, and you can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

I’ve never been to CES before, but it’s hard to escape the flurry of noisy tweets and headlines. One morsel that managed catch my attention centered around major automobile manufacturers announcing deals with the leading mobile operating system players, Android (Google) and iOS (Apple) and dark horse Microsoft. Now, it’s hard to know if these are true statements of intent or just the beginning legs of a PR campaign piggybacking on the worldwide attention given to CES annually, but given how many folks I see on their mobile phones while simultaneously driving leads me to have confidence that the automobile is indeed a consumer mobile frontier.

For this week’s column on mobile, I want to take a slightly different approach. There’s no use in rehashing what all the PR releases and tech blogs have already written about “the connected car,” so instead, I’ll start from first-principles, assuming most of this space remains mostly greenfield and likely to be more complex than these larger multinational automakers would like us to believe. Here’s the framework I use to think about the challenge, but also the opportunity, and would love to read your thoughts or reactions below:

Government’s Rules: I missed the memo on this but realized when I was pulled over for adjusting the volume on my phone while I was in the car that new laws (at least in California) prohibit the use of a phone under any circumstance. The driver must be pulled over to the side and car placed in “Park” in order to operate the phone, adjust Maps, and so forth. I wonder if state governments will get stricter here. If so, it presents an opportunity for car manufacturers to build better dashboards for consumers.

Operating System: Not surprisingly, Google and Apple are interested in expanding their platforms into our cars, but Apple’s iOS is more of closed system, whereas one can imagine the malleability of Android would be more attractive to automakers. I did notice Audi announced a partnership with Google to bring Android into the car. My suspicion here is this gives Audi more control over how the OS is deployed. For instance, in 2013 Ford announced it would allow developers to write apps directly onto their platform. Is that what consumers want, or do they want to use the same apps and brands they’re already accustomed to? (Incidentally, an auto OS could be a point of marketing contention. What if customers start basing their car purchases over what OS the car offers? More specifically, since BMW is aligned with Apple, will loyal Audi owners make the switch? I realize this scenario presents a grotesque first-world problem, but that said, these purchases represent real profits in a huge industry.)

Data Providers: I’m sure to the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world, the day of truly “connected car” couldn’t be more exciting. These days, carriers are making their money by charging for tiered data plans (and international gouging). Right now, it’s a bit clunky to connect our own mobile devices to the car, the best option being Bluetooth, though it’s not perfect. More and more cars have audio-in jacks for auxiliary lines, but those connections offer distort the signal. There’s the trusty cassette-tape adapter (which I use!), but that is not the future. A more fully-integrated system will likely encourage drivers to use more services beyond just radio/music and maps (such as radar systems), and in the process, more data — especially as future generations grow more accustomed to streaming data versus keeping it on the client-side.

Dashboard vs. Screens Per Seat: The focus of what auto manufacturers will do for “connected cars” seems to be on the driver’s control dashboard. The tall, vertical dashboard inside Tesla’s Model S embodies this, almost the side of two iPads side-by-side. For the driver, apps need to be easy to see and use, and will present new UI challenges (and calls for safety regulation). For instance, will it all be touch and glass, or are physical buttons more useful while conducting another task which requires motor skills. (Pun intended.)  They’ll also need to be more intelligent and “lean back” experiences, like Pandora. Will front passengers be able to use the dashboard apps, but more immersed than their drivers? But, why stop there — shouldn’t all passengers have their own screens, the same we do on modern aircraft? Some cars already provide screens for the rear passengers, but consider one for every seat. Or, would these folks just use their own devices and simply need convenient access to A/C power?

Will Cars Enable New Apps? Today, the apps I use while driving are Google Maps, Spotify and Pandora (for music), Swell (for talk radio, where I work), and Automatic (for driving stats). How will this change over time?

Ports and Interchangeability vs. Embedded Systems: Consumers tend to change their mobile phones and tablets about every two years, give or take, but not their cars. That presents issues for embedded dashboard systems which could be running on outdated hardware, even though the software is easier to update. Ideally, drivers could just buy their own tablet (of a pre-selected bunch) and then drop the tablet (and data provider) of their choice into their car. This would allow them to upgrade to newer hardware and keep their car.

I don’t know the specifics, but I worry that the automakers will first try to own this glass and likely end up reliving the old navigation system problem where handheld technologies continue to improve. It could feel like sitting on an airplane in 2014 and having the screen in the seatback facing you be from 2007. We all know what that feels like, and it doesn’t feel like the future.  I have faith with cars, it will different than the airlines, and better — I just don’t know how yet, but I’m excited to see it all unfold.

Photo Credit: Phil Campbell / Flickr Creative Commons