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2016: The big developments in automotive technology so far

by Jack Bergquist , 11.03.2016

Since the emergence of the smartphone, vehicle manufacturers, otherwise known as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), have been scrambling to cash in on the consumer demand for such technology in vehicles. Seeing this as a selling point, every manufacturer seemed to choose a different path to implement connected features and services in vehicles – unfortunately, in some cases with limited regard to whether customers wanted them or how they would use them. This has led to a number of different systems reaching the market over the past five years which, while hitting the tick box in terms of features, haven’t gotten close to matching customer expectations based around the phone in their pocket. So are the developments we’ve seen this year taking a step in the right direction to meeting customer needs?

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016

CES in Las Vegas has now become the staging post for OEM announcements around the connected car. This year saw their presence at the show continue to grow. A number of OEMs showcased their autonomous vehicle concepts; these undoubtedly make a great marketing statement, but are still at least 10 years away from being a true reality in the mainstream market – consider the advancements needed in technology, the regulatory hurdles, the practical considerations on our roads, the need for price tags to reduce to reach a wide market and the changing ownership models such vehicles may create.

Shorter-term announcements focused on the realization that the connected car is no longer just a standalone device, but actually one of many interfaces the future connected consumer will use as part of their daily lives (as we explored in Tech Trends 2016). Ford announced a new partnership with Amazon, which will allow its Sync 3 infotainment platform to connect with Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice assistant. While the initial use cases are sited as enabling integration with the smart home (locking doors or starting the car from inside the house via Echo), this highlights a much bigger and more important trend in automotive moving forwards. With companies like Harman also announcing similar partnerships (with Microsoft/Cortana), the notion of the car being one node in a customer’s connected life becomes closer to reality. In the future, customers will be able to seamlessly integrate their connected life between PC, phone, tablet, laptop, home and car, and a big part of this will be cloud-based assistants which can be accessed through any of these terminals.

Another swathe of announcements at the show concerned the use of predictive analytics to make drivers’ lives easier (and more dependent on in-vehicle systems). Both Mercedes and Toyota had an announcement along these lines. The systems will learn the driver’s daily routines and automatically warn them of traffic events that might impact them. In the future, such systems will also help to provide suggestions when doing things such as searching for somewhere to eat based on previous selections.

The rest of 2016

While the reality of fully autonomous vehicles might be over a decade away, in automotive terms this is very soon, and the broader implications of this haven’t gone unnoticed by many of the vehicle manufacturers. At MWC in Barcelona, Ford firmly drew a line positioning itself as not just a vehicle manufacturer, but also a mobility provider of the future. This announcement ties in actions from other OEMs such as General Motors’ $500 million investment in Lyft and BMW’s investment in DriveNow some years ago.

OEMs can see the writing on the wall – the drive towards autonomy will also lead to a move away from traditional ownership for many consumers. These changing trends in future mobility could have a huge impact on the way the automotive industry operates, and as such, understanding and tracking this behavior from consumers will become increasingly key moving forwards.

Unfortunately, some of the systems reaching customers in 2016 are still a way off from the perfect implementation, however they’ve made great strides over the earlier attempts. Most OEMs have now seen fit to try and maintain some level of user interface commonality between models so at least it’s not a whole new learning experiences when customers replace their vehicles. What we’ve seen so far in 2016 though, demonstrates more great strides towards having more integrated, remotely update-able and functional platforms reaching the roads in the coming years.

What is your opinion? Please email me to share your thoughts at Jack.Bergquist@gfk.com.