Is the car the next smartphone?

The automobile is often cited as the next big mobile device. Find out more about connected cars and how they might impact your business.

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.