The smartphone will play a key role in the next-generation connected car. In many cases, it will supply wireless internet connectivity to the dashboard, which will be the central nervous system for the car’s entertainment options. But several automakers want the driver’s phone to be much more than that: They want it to serve as the brains of the entire connected car. That means it would host the various apps that give the car added functionality, while the car itself would simply become the interface for those apps. That would allow carmakers to add new features more frequently because more advanced phones come out all the time. By making the smartphone the hub of the connected car, automakers will cede some control, but they may have no choice.
Some cars already have limited voice-command capabilities — we can play songs, for example, and initiate phone calls. But in the future, they will be able to use cloud-based natural-language understanding to interpret increasingly complex requests. Not only will we be able to dictate emails and text messages while driving, eventually voice-driven car assistants will merge with personal assistants in the phone and home. When that happens, our cars will be able to communicate with our TVs, say, or our security systems.
The apps that have appeared in the dash so far are more entertainment focused, like Pandora and Amazon Cloud Player, but soon we’ll see the same wide array of apps in cars that we’re used to seeing on our smartphones and tablets. Automakers will need to set restrictions on app developers — for safety reasons. But with new hands-free interfaces we’ll be able to reserve parking, get recommendations to nearby restaurants, and share our locations with family, friends and co-workers — all with a simple voice command.
The auto industry and regulators are developing the standards for wireless networking that, simply put, will allow cars to talk to one another. They’ll be able to communicate whether they’re accelerating, braking or turning — even their eventual destinations. The more cars know what their peers are doing the more they can coordinate. Ultimately, we’ll get safer cars that can sense traffic and highway conditions far better than any single driver.
Though automakers will be very careful how much of the engine, transmission and other sensitive components in the powertrain they expose to the world, eventually apps will be able to access vehicle performance and diagnostic information. Apps will be able to monitor our cars’ health, and tell us when they’re driven and who’s driving them. We’ll be able to ship our cars’ drive data to our mechanics and to our insurers so they can better diagnose problems and offer us better insurance premiums.
As cars start linking to each other, they can create massive moving mesh networks that in turn link to fixed nodes on the highway. What you get is a “hive mind”, where massive groups of vehicles can coordinate their activities on the highway, not just preventing accidents but controlling the flow of traffic through a centralized intelligence. It sounds far-fetched, but with the number of vehicles on the road growing into the multiple billions, people may actually have to give up control if they expect to actually get anywhere.
Editor’s Note: We chose the Chevy Spark as the template for our graphic because it’s representative of the type of relatively affordable car that we think will be the biggest beneficiaries of connected car technologies. That’s because the target market for cars at that price point are particularly receptive to these kinds of new features and, as a group, is big enough to help make large-scale adoption more likely. The choice of the Spark for this graphic does not in any way constitute of an endorsement of that car.