With all the media attention for the burgeoning EV market, it’s easy to miss that there is another revolution taking place at the same time. The two overlap and reinforce each other, but they are also clearly discrete as well. That other revolution is connected services, which turn your car into a customizable device like a computer. This shift in vehicle architecture could change the way we use our cars considerably – and fundamentally alter the way we view them.
If you go back as little as 15 years, most cars didn’t even have a built-in satnav, let alone the updatable systems some have today. Unless you were a car customizer yourself, or had a friendly garage, your vehicle would stay essentially the same for its entire lifespan, and updates would primarily be mechanical. But then car infotainment systems arrived with integrated satnavs, receiving live traffic information either through a radio signal or, more recently, through a built-in data connection. The satnav maps could be updated, and although this was initially via disc or USB memory stick and usually quite expensive, it set the tone of where technology was headed.
Now more and more functions of a car are run by electronics and software. Automatic climate control, automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, and of course the engine control itself. Even internal combustion cars can have their performance improved with a software update to engine management – often known as “chipping”. Turbocharged cars in particular can have more power released by a simple change in code. But electric vehicles provide opportunities for more power and range efficiency. So now cars are starting to have software updates that do much more than provide the latest navigational maps. New entertainment features and even vehicle efficiencies are being added, and these are starting to be provided via wireless data, in a similar fashion to updating the operating system of your iPhone.
Unsurprisingly, Tesla is the poster child of connected vehicles as well as electrification, showing how related these two areas are. Any Tesla owner will tell you that updates roll out on an almost weekly basis for their cars, bringing with them much more than just bug fixes. New online entertainment services arrive and new games, but also more performance, efficiency and safety features such as the blind spot camera added towards the end of 2021. The controversial FSD Beta arrived in select regions without car owners needing to acquire a different vehicle or even pay extra if they purchased their vehicles with the service at the outset. Those accepted on the beta simply receive the feature as a software update.
Other vehicle manufacturers are starting to roll out these kinds of “over the air” updates, including Polestar, Volvo and the Volkswagen Group. None of these manufacturers offer anywhere near as much with each update as Tesla, but at least they are starting to take advantage of what a connected vehicle can offer. Polestar and Volvo now use Android Automotive OS to provide their connected car features. These companies realize that cars are now dynamic, updateable devices like smartphones. It’s an alien concept for traditional automakers such as this, but they realize that it will be essential for their cars to remain attractive to customers in the future.
A truly connected car opens up the vehicle’s growing array of sensors to services provided externally and brings information from external networks into the car. One of the most unlikely players in this market is BlackBerry. Unlike, that is, if you haven’t been paying attention to the car market in any depth. This brand was once synonymous with keyboard-equipped smartphones much beloved by the business community. But BlackBerry purchased a real-time Unix-like operating system called QNX in 2010, which it initially used in the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. But QNX has also been used for car telematics since the early 2000s, and is now in 195 million vehicles, including vehicles from Ford. BMW recently announced it would be using QNX in its vehicles to help provide Level 2 and 2+ autonomous features. BlackBerry QNX has even been called the iOS of cars, and there is a BlackBerry podcast that covers where the company is planning to take the platform.
Lots of divers now see Apple Car Play and Android Auto as essential capabilities of a modern car, allowing you to bring your phone’s navigational, entertainment and communication functions onto the vehicle’s infotainment screen. However, while this can provide a better GPS connection to the smartphone via the car’s built-in receiver, in most other respects Car Play and Android Auto will not supply the benefits of a connected car. Your smartphone won’t interface with other car sensors, so for example won’t automatically suggest charging points for an electric car based on current remaining range. Most systems won’t supply information from the smartphone to a head up display.
Tesla’s cars don’t even support Car Play or Android Auto, and most of the time you won’t miss them because the built-in features are so good. You can still easily send destinations from your smartphone maps to your car, use the phone as a key, and manage car functions including triggering software updates and using the car’s built-in cameras as a live streaming video surveillance system. It’s really useful to have access to car functions via your smartphone, but it doesn’t need to take over inside the car if the vehicle’s own connected features are good enough.
Cars that improve over time with software feature updates will increasingly make vehicles without this ability look incredibly antiquated. It’s unlikely that it will be possible to sell non-connected cars in the future, except at the absolute budget end of the market. Sometime in the next decade, though, autonomous driving is likely to become the killer feature of connected cars. You will be able to summon your car to your current location, even send it to collect someone from another location. The future of cars is already electric power, but it’s going to be a feature-rich connected future too.