Despite arriving on the scene relatively recently,
smartphones and tablets are now part of the everyday computing experience in
homes and businesses around the world. An iPad in an executive meeting was a
novelty 18 months ago, but is now fairly common. Those wondering where the next
big mobile device revolution might occur have often cited the lowly automobile
as the next big mobile device. Here’s what you need to know about connected
cars and how they might impact your business.

Sensors on wheels

Most modern vehicles are loaded with sensors that
communicate over what is conceptually analogous to a LAN in the vehicle called
the CAN bus. Push the gas in most modern vehicles, and rather than a cable
opening a throttle, a digital message goes out over the CAN bus and an engine
controller increases the throttle. Similarly, various components of the car are
also reporting their status. In addition to complex engine sensors, turning on
the wipers or headlights sends a message across the bus. Throw GPS capabilities
into the mix, and you have a highly instrumented, location-aware platform that
puts smartphones to shame.

It’s no secret that modern cars are loaded with specialized
embedded computers; however, more recently cars have gained more functional and
interactive interfaces in the form of modern “infotainment” units.

The missing link

Missing from this picture has been high-speed connectivity;
however, that is rapidly changing. Several automakers have announced embedded
high-speed wireless connectivity, with embedded 4G radios providing access to
speedy networks, allowing cars to share the reams of data they’re collecting
and interact with applications and services.

Apps in the cloud

Like most modern mobile applications that use a smartphone
or tablet as a presentation layer, and provide applications and computing
horsepower in a cloud-style environment, connected vehicles are the same.
What’s fundamentally interesting about a connected car is that it provides far
more intelligence about what its user, the driver, is doing. If my low fuel
light comes on, the vehicle could intelligently gather a list of local gas
stations. Take this to its next logical level, and a particular gasoline
retailer could offer a fuel discount to encourage the driver to pull her
thirsty vehicle into his service station. Based on our location and even
queries to the navigation system, our cars know everything from when we’re
hungry and what kind of restaurants we usually prefer, to when and where we’re
speeding, or even when an emergency has occurred.

Autonomous cars, still several years away, might even use
their sensor data to form ad-hoc networks that communicate with nearby cars and
communicate road conditions, speed information, or even hazards that have been
detected.

Cars and the
enterprise

The benefits and applications enabled by these technologies
are relatively obvious from a consumer perspective, but you might be wondering
how they’ll impact the enterprise. The most notable change is that the car now
becomes a highly targeted channel for marketers. Just as you can email an offer
to someone in a particular demographic who has searched for certain keywords in
the last seven days, you can now push an offer to drivers who have a certain
fuel level, are in a certain area, and tend to prefer cheeseburgers over
salads.

An increasingly computerized and connected car also faces
many of the same challenges as smartphones and tablets. There are literally life
and death risks to securing access to certain vehicle subsystems, challenges to
updating software on a massive fleet of geographically dispersed devices, and
concerns about end user privacy. If your company markets to consumers or helps
solve the challenges around managing mobile devices, you should be paying
attention to the connected car. If you offer content or services that might be
relevant to drivers, the connected car gives you a quick and easy way to reach
those consumers.

Connected car
challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing connected vehicles is
the threat from smartphones and tablets. Some companies and consumers have
suggested simply integrating existing tablets into the automobile, providing a
docking station and interface to the CAN bus. This allows the driver to upgrade
the user interface and connectivity of the car by replacing a tablet, rather
than upgrading to a new vehicle. This becomes especially compelling when you
consider that a five year old smartphone might be “ancient” by technology
standards, but is still quite modern by automotive standards.

Privacy and infrastructure concerns also abound. Will
consumers embrace a car that gently reminds them they need an oil change and
suggests a service station near their favorite bar, since it knows the driver
usually stops by for a drink on Tuesday night? Will rapidly built, cloud-based
infrastructures provide a smartphone-like experience when millions of cars are
sending frequent position and data updates? Despite the challenges, the lowly
automobile may well be the next major mobile platform and an interesting market
for your products or services.