At the recent AutoMobility LA trade show, Ford's CEO Mark Fields stood up in front of an audience of 300 industry professionals and said: "While we will continue to make great vehicles, they are no longer our entire game."
Rather, Ford thinks of itself as a software company, an urbanisation and city planning company, a technology and innovation company, and a public policy innovator. Take a look around the show, and you'd see that Ford isn't alone. That's why Fields described the event as "the first major automotive show in the world that isn't just about cars."
Since Apple CarPlay and Android Auto drove onto the scene nearly three years ago, the role of the car has started to change. Now that your car can connect to your smartphone, it's become an extension of yourself, with all your music, contacts and apps just a voice command away. Have it talk to your wearables and your smart home too, and it'll make driving safer, more convenient and a lot more productive than it is now.
Echoes of the future
Augmented reality HUD from Mini
One of the major announcements at AutoMobility LA was that Hyundai has added Amazon Echo functionality to its Blue Link connected car app. This means you can remotely start the engine, set the temperature and have it warm up while you finish your coffee in the kitchen. And all you have to do is ask Alexa, the Echo's built-in personal assistant.
According to Miles Johnson, Hyundai's senior manager of technology and public relations, syncing to the smart home makes perfect sense. "Remote start is one of our most popular features," he says. "But why not take it a step further? You could look up your destination on your phone or computer and send it to the in-car system, so the directions are cued up when you get in. It's all about simplifying the experience for users."
You could set the temperature of the house from the car, so it's toasty when you get home
But it's not just more convenient, it could save you money too. "Another application is with electric cars," says Johnson. "For example, you could set it to start charging during off-peak hours to save you money on your electricity bill. But that's just the start. Once your smart home is talking to your car, the possibilities are endless."
And it shouldn't be a one-way conversation. "It should work the other way too," says Johnson. "Our long-term plan is to have complete integration from car to house. That means you could set the temperature of the house from the car, so it's nice and toasty when you get home."
An office on wheels
Plenty of car companies are investing heavily in how wearables could interact with the car. And while the novelty factor is undeniable – we're sure we'll eventually tire of saying "Kitt, I need you buddy" into our smartwatch – it also has very practical applications.
"Augmented reality will revolutionise heads-up displays," says Martin Kristensson, Volvo Cars' senior director of autonomous drive and connectivity strategy. "One of the main limitations with an HUD is the physics. You need the same depth perception as the human eye, but that requires lots of mirrors and takes up a lot of space. When you project it onto the windscreen you never get an accurate sense of depth. But a pair of smartglasses could solve that problem."
Your wearable could even save lives. We've already reported on how Ford is developing a system that can read your blood sugar levels from a wearable in order to alert diabetics that they're about to go hypoglycaemic. They could then pull the car over, and avoid potentially causing a crash.
BMW's Vision Next 100
Self-driving cars, meanwhile, could mean a better quality of life for commuters. "When you can work while commuting, you don't have to leave home so early," says Andy Furse, product manager for strategy, options and technology at BMW. "Instead of leaving at half seven to get to the office for eight, you can leave at eight and hold your first meeting of the day in the car, and give it your full, undivided attention. It means you can spend more time at home with the family."
But it's not all work. Volvo's Concept 26 puts the car in three different modes: Drive, Create and Relax, enabling the driver to drive, work and kick back, respectively. The car could become much more than just a vehicle, and more of a mobile office-cum-hotel room. "There's no reason why you couldn't have a Sky Q-style system in the car linked to your home," says Furse. "That way you could pick up watching in the car where you left off in the lounge."
Your car can even double as a drop-off point for couriers, thanks to Volvo's In-Car Delivery service. This gives the courier a temporary digital key that lets them access the boot and nothing else.
They can then leave your package there waiting for you. It's only available in Sweden and Norway at the moment, but Volvo is expanding it to other services and markets. "It's an example of how we're pioneering services around the car," says Kristensson at Volvo.
The road ahead
In-car delivery from Volvo
At the moment, connected cars have plenty of obstacles in the way. There's the extra cost of adding data connectivity to a car, a balkanised terrain of competing platforms and ecosystems that's confusing – and potentially expensive – for consumers (especially if they switch their Android phone for an iPhone, or vice-versa).
Developers are reluctant to make apps for platforms where the user has to focus on the road instead of their lovely UI. Cars have long life cycles too, so manufacturers run the risk of building in a potentially obsolete piece of technology. Then there are the stringent safety guidelines that also turn off developers, and the dire security repercussions if the cars are hacked.
Nevertheless, the industry is convinced that the future of cars is connected. That's why Samsung recently spent $8 billion acquiring connected car specialist Harman. If the fabled Apple Car ever sees the light of day, expect it to be compatible with Apple HomeKit, the Apple Watch, and whatever Apple's latest toy is at the time.
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So what's the next step towards a more connected driving experience? According to Miles Johnson at Hyundai, the key is to try things and see where they lead.
"We started investigating wearables years ago, when we made an app for Google Glass," he says. "Obviously Glass didn't take off, but the work we did wasn't wasted. It led to the development of our smartwatch app, which now lets the driver control the car through Amazon Echo. You need to be constantly experimenting, and give the teams the freedom to be creative. You've got to take risks and see where it goes."