Connected Cars and Smarter Smartphones

As smartphones get smarter, and cars more connected it seems to me that there is a huge untapped market. Not everyone will replace their car along with their phone (or vice versa) so an opportunity exists to create a flexible, standards based solution both for new vehicles and aftermarket retro fit scenarios.

Luckily many of the standards needed to deliver this already exist. Bluetooth, NFC, wireless charging, ODB-II can all combine to present a seamless experience – if only the software was available to tie it all together…

Just as the “Internet of Things” is becoming a hot topic to describe previously isolated devices we are seeing manufacturers like Tesla start to treat their cars as parts of a network, and both Google and Apple with their in-car integration strategies are following the (pun intended) road paved by Microsoft and Ford with Sync.

Five years ago I observed that there was a gap in the market, but the technology solutions then were, at that stage, still a little clumsy. Today however all the pieces are available, but there is still a way to go. In an ideal world leveraging the existing standards or proposing extensions that allow graceful degradation means the user gets the best outcome – portability, longevity and an experience focused on their needs. Sadly the more likely outcome will probably be incompatible solutions from different auto makers and phone companies to try and lock you into specific ecosystems. So if you want an Audi you’ll have to use an iPhone, but if you drive a BMW then you’ll need a Samsung Android phone. If we leave this to the car companies then we’ll get an unworkable outdated mess and most of the tech companies will already be making todays solution redundant before it rolls off the line as they chase quarterly numbers for Wall Street.

In my opinion the one player who could do a good job of this is Microsoft. No, really, bear with me. They have been working on in-car systems for longer than any other tech company and while Sync has some critics it set the bar and started this current arms race. They don’t just have a connection to Ford through the Sync partnership but they also work with many of the best known names in the motoring and motorsport world through other parts of their business. They understand and play well with standards based solutions, that’s a hard learnt lesson that gives them a much more open perspective. Through their relationship with Nokia they have a connection to a phenomenal amount of mapping data – in fact the Nokia Here maps are the only mobile navigation solution offered out of the box (on Windows Phone and Nokia X handsets) that can work offline to cut down on the need for reliable data connection. Finally with Windows Phone as number three player in the field they have a strong incentive to not limit their solution to a small footprint – just like Office is available today on iOS and Android they have demonstrated an ability to deliver what users want no matter what platform. In fact, I wrote most of this swapping from my Android phone to my iPad and them my Mac – leveraging Office and OneDrive the whole time.

So, what does my idea solution look like? Actually it’s not that much changed in the last 5 years, beyond the ubiquity and quality of the technology needed to support this.

The car would need a head unit that can pump audio around the car (and maybe feed video to the back seats). A screen would be optional, only really needed if you don’t want to always use a phone for the display. Having a physical screen would however allow a larger viewable area, and physical buttons (including mapping any steering wheel controls) can be used to control apps running on the phone. The head unit would also support Bluetooth, WiFi and other inputs to act as a collator for car data – backup camera, blind spot radar, ODB-II information such as revs, speed, fuel level, oil temperature and pressure or trouble codes as well as NFC to recognize the phone. The fixed hardware could also include a secondary GPS unit to supplement the phones positioning – if nothing else giving a quicker start-up time.

The phone mount would position the handset to deliver optimal information to the driver – possibly a magnetic mount for flexibility and supporting inductive charging. An NFC tag on the mount would tell the phone it’s docked so switch to car mode. Once in car mode the phone would connect to the head unit via Bluetooth and/or WiFi and act as the source of navigation, provide music (ducking audio automatically when giving directions, maybe even working with the head unit to focus instructions on the driver while not interrupting the passengers as much). When getting from A to B the software would work with the ODB inputs to track overall health of the vehicle, fuel levels and consumption as well as traffic conditions and suggest most cost or time effective detours around accidents or when gas is needed. At the same time anonymized data could be fed back to the cloud to help the routing algorithms have another view into traffic flow, information about accidents (eg like Waze) or gas prices (GasBuddy) by noticing when you fill up with fuel and asking how much you paid.

If a user plans their route on their computer before leaving that information could seamlessly be transferred to the phone as a plan – so waypoints and places of interest could be pre-selected to over-ride the more simplistic quickest / least distance algorithms that most mobile solutions opt for. The diagnostics data and GPS tracks could also be stored and pushed back to a cloud solution to let you review where you’ve been and how you’ve been driving (especially for enthusiasts on track days who would like a record of their adventure – throttle position, g-force, speed could all be overlaid on a map and coupled to a paired camera feed).

By responding to spoken commands, physical buttons on the head unit or steering wheel the distractions of interacting with the phone itself would be minimized. Texts and other alerts could be spoken rather than needing the driver to read or use an on-screen keyboard. New features can be supported in software as long as they can join the network mesh in the car allowing upgrades to the car or changing phones to be seamless for the user.

Who knows, as the systems get more sophisticated the phone could end up as the keys for the car and when you get into an authorized vehicle and dock your phone it could recognize you and adjust the mirrors, seat and steering wheel to match your ergonomic profile and even select your preferred engine tune for the drive ahead.

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