Future of Auto Industry Telematics and Connected Cars Will Transform the Driver into Captain

February 26, 2010

Forecast & Outlook:  The value chain associated with the human driving experience is about to be transformed – and within a decade I suspect most people will no longer see themselves as frustrated drivers but empowered Captains and navigators of complex transportation networks.

The coming age of digitally ‘connected cars’  and robotic (autonomous) vehicles will not take away control from humans, it will extend and expand human judgement, command and control in ways that we cannot currently imagine – or express as consumers!

Updating our Vision of Mobility
The global mobility sector lacks a clear vision and road map for change.  Innovative efforts must deal with the same challenge captured in Henry Ford’s anecdote: “If I would have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said…a faster horse“.

Today’s drivers want a car that is safer but gets them around faster!  They want a vehicle is that is more powerful but clean and efficient!  But they are not demanding the scalable and cost effective means to those ends which include a more digitally connected car and a new ‘Captain’ role for the human.

So if consumers are not demanding this type of change, we might look at the emergence of new types of workers in the mobility sector!

A Look at our 21st Century Automobile Workforce
One of the most valuable autoworkers of the 21st century is sitting in front of a computer – programming code so digitally connected vehicles can talk to other vehicles about what is happening on the road.  Another autoworker is installing a new off-the-shelf radar system to detect obstacles on the road and warn the driver of hazards.

Another autoworker is designing a new vehicle category around a $1,000 small chariot aimed at short personal trips.   A former new car sales rep is making more money in aftermarket sales by selling software and hardware upgrades to personalize her clients’ electric vehicles.  An insurance agent is talking with a teenage driver explaining video-based driver assistance technologies that will help improve safety and performance behind the wheel.

This 21st century auto industry workforce is creating value by making vehicles that are smarter via sensing technologies, more connected and aware via communication technologies, and more personalized via software and hardware upgrades.  They are creating value by empowering the human mobility experience.

But let’s not avoid confronting the transformative visions!

The end game is a world where connected cars do not crash… a world where drivers are fully engaged in understanding real-time situational analysis… a world where transportation network users know the full range of mobility options (owned or accessed, public or private)… a world where vehicles are capable of autonomously driving themselves in way that is safer and more efficient than anything based on human operators.

These are the logical extensions of all these efforts by the 21st century mobility industry.  We cannot say with certainty how it will be different, only that the future of mobility will be different.

But what these autoworkers are NOT trying to do is making the human irrelevant.  These ‘connected car’ systems are not designed to replace the human driver, they are designed to promote the human from ‘driver to Captain’.

Profits in the Telematic Age of Automobiles

Profits (not technologies) are driving theses changes.  The days of high profit margins based on building a huge metal car to be sold on a car lot to some yet to be determined buyer ended long ago.   This model suffers from an inescapable problem of managing factory capacity utilization, failure of re-occurring revenues, demand for new full model updates, and global brand competition.  [See Ford Skateboard chassis post; GM manufacturing post]  The growth within the new car profit paradigm plateaued a long time ago…

When auto companies had trouble balancing their books via a factory production driven business model, they moved into consumer financing during the 1980s-90s.  It was good, for a while!  Now this platform is facing more competition for consumer financing and uncertainty in our regulatory landscape.

Time to step up the value chain…

Automakers are getting back to the fundamentals of rethinking mobility and building their next growth platform around the Age of Telematics.

Telematics include hardware, software and services that transform the driving experience.  This is the world of GM’s OnStar, Ford’s Sync and Kia’s uVo and thousands of yet to be named applications that will alter how we move within the world across vehicles that we own and access.

Telematic applications for ‘connected cars’ include: crash warning system, collision avoidance, point to point navigation, hands-free communication, adaptive cruise control, and automatic driving assistance systems (e.g. lane change assistance, braking assistance, et al)

The hope is a world that will be safer for drivers and pedestrians, less congestion via more transparent traffic flows, and easier access to transit solutions.

But this ‘connected car’ effort is also only the first step…

The end game is a vehicle that is so connected and situationally aware that it can operate autonomously without human drivers on public roads.

We all know this conceptually from Hollywood movies, but for those few people who have been actively tracking the development of these systems (e.g. DARPA Challenges; evolution of OEMs) we can now see a clear roadmap and path forward.

And as with most disruptive platforms, it is the human factors, not the technology factors that will determine how fast and successfully we make the transition.  The relevant question is not ‘when will it happen’, but ‘why should it happen’?

The great news is that ‘connected cars’ and fully autonomous vehicles preserve the human ego and are less threatening than one might believe…

The Value Chain of Mobility
There is a difference between ‘who is in charge’ versus ‘who is doing the grunt work’.  The naval Captain oversees the boat, but does not have hands on the wheel unless needed.  The student is in charge of solving the math problem but the calculator does the work.  The farmer who drives the tractor is still ultimately responsible for managing the complexities of planting and growing crops.

Technologies that ‘automate’ human tasks do not make humans irrelevant, they merely push humans up the value chain and allow us to eliminate the grunt work.

Today the value chain of our driving experience includes steering, accelerating, and braking.  Our primary lens for making all of our decisions is based on the very limited visual perspectives of looking forward, to the side and in our rear view mirror.   Despite our delusions of being attentive drivers, we actually see and know very little about what is actually happening ahead of us beyond our line of sight.

How much do we value these tasks?

I think we value talking on our phones and texting more than steering, braking and accelerating!

Despite our claims of loving to drive, in our daily commutes, we are obviously bored.

The real  value is not driving, but getting to our destination safely and as fast as humanly possible!  The problem is that we are seeing the limits of what is possible with humans!

Telematic technologies are going to transform the value chain of vehicle operation and navigation within congested traffic settings.

Tomorrow, we will have more ‘situational awareness’ information flows that include real-time data gathered from vehicles ahead on the road.  We will know to leave 10 minutes early if it means arriving on time, or leaving 15 minutes later if it means avoiding congestion.

We will be able to see alternative routes to our destination by tapping ‘top down’ live video images that show us what is actually happening ahead.  During congested traffic (not on open Montana roads) our ‘connected cars’ will tell us how fast to drive based on actual (optimal) traffic flow patterns and when to merge lanes for our exit.

The ‘connected car’ will be the guide, but the human will be the Captain making higher value decisions.

Nonsense, some may say.  Humans will never listen’ to their car – or take orders.

I say it makes perfect sense.  Just wait until drivers have that first experience of real-time information that improves their commute.  Only the actual experience itself will be able to change our assumptions of what is desirable based on advanced telematic systems.

I expect people will love their ‘connected cars’ even more than they do today.

And if you don’t expect West Texas libertarians to ‘listen to their cars’, then what about 16 year olds who are required by their insurance companies and incentivized by their parents?  What about 80 million digital native Millennials/GenY drivers?   Or the 80 million aging Baby Boomers who appreciate a collaborative relationship with their car?

These ‘smart’ ‘connected cars’ will make us better drivers.   And they will be our first step into the Captain’s chair.

They will not make us irrelevant; they will simply push the human further up the command and control ladder.

Ok, Mr Futurist!  When is this going to happen?

It seems that every luxury car on the market is offering ‘assistive parking’ and driver crash warning systems.  And the 2010 Ford Taurus is the first mainstream car equipped with adaptive cruise control.  Yet while the ‘connected car’ product ecosystem is already present within the market, the vision has not yet been clearly stated!

I suspect we won’t be able to have an honest public conversation about what is possible until 2013-2017 when ‘connected cars’ and adaptive cruise control become standard to our driving experience.

That is when I would expect we can see real life value in something as simple+radical as a horseless carriage, a flying metal plane, an ATM machine, ‘world wide computer network’ or handheld computer.

For now, let’s not even try to forecast fully autonomous cars on the highway until we are standing mid-decade and the next generation of autoworkers are actually in place.

Until then, I expect that notion of ‘robotic’ (autonomous) cars will be defined by fear and assumptions that ‘you want to replace me’ or ‘force me to give up control’.

So I am focusing on spreading the ‘Captain’ meme… and pointing out that ‘connected cars’ will not take away control, but extend it and empower the human in ways that we cannot currently imagine!

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