Faulty connection: Unlocking the huge potential of connected cars

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The YouTube clip is almost comically understated. To showcase his new Apple Watch app, capable of controlling a Tesla Model S electric vehicle, millionaire developer Allen Wong honks the car’s horn and flashes its lights. For fans of 1980s television, imagine a really uneventful episode of David Hasselhoff’s Knight Rider – with a much better wristwatch.

The implications are nonetheless profound for car makers, but only if they learn the right lessons about in-vehicle digital technology meeting consumer needs.

The concept of the ‘connected car’ is nothing new, of course. You have to go back eight long years, to the 2007 Detroit Motor Show, for Ford’s grand unveiling of its first major crack at car connectivity, the much-vaunted ‘SYNC’ partnership with Microsoft.

And the connected car is becoming ever-more commonplace, across both luxury and mid-market segments. A Business Insider (BI) study estimates that, by the end of the decade, 75% of cars shipped globally will be built with the necessary hardware to connect to the internet.

However, the BI report throws up more troubling findings for auto manufacturers – none more so than the suggestion that consumers are yet to find this rush towards connectivity especially useful.

Not all technology catches on immediately. Take internet-enabled televisions: the technology itself has been around for several years, but only with the all-important combination of utility, content and service offered by providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime have consumers embraced internet enabled TV. Wearable technology may also be in the middle of the lag between capability and compelling proposition, when mass uptake becomes a reality.

So what can motor firms do to get over this line? Over half of respondents to the BI survey like the idea of streaming music, surfing the web and avoiding upcoming traffic jams through in-car connectivity. Yet, even by the end of the decade, only an estimated 40% of drivers say they will activate connected services available within their vehicles.

Trust is part of the problem. A 2013 report by Mintel revealed that onein- five US drivers (18%) worry about potential software bugs in infotainment or navigation systems, while 10% believe multimedia systems like MyFord Touch or Toyota Entune are “too complicated”. Incidents like Fiat Chrysler’s recent recall of 1.4 million vehicles after an alleged hack through the car infotainment system do nothing to abate those fears.

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Is the problem technology itself? Do drivers desire the good old days of basic motoring, when the most advanced piece of technology was the cassette tape player? Almost certainly not. Today’s consumers enjoy access to digital services in all other elements of life, but they are yet to understand the value of such experiences in their cars. A major step in the right direction would be to ensure that in-car digital technology complements and interacts with drivers’ smartphones. For instance, a quarter of respondents to the aforementioned Mintel report want to be able to use their mobile phone’s Apple Maps, Google Maps or Bing Maps on their vehicle display. Specifically looking at Millennials, that figure rises to 39%. Consumers enjoy new gadgets, but they also demand ease of utility.

Auto brands must work harder to emphasise the usefulness and value of connected car technology, and this can only be achieved by looking outside the walls of the automotive industry. Manufacturers need their car to be part of an ecosystem of applications and services, leveraging the platform that the connected car provides. They must embrace innovations from all around the world of technology.

A good example can be found in a promotional video for Google-owned smart thermostat maker Nest, outlining its compatibility with other devices. Former Mercedes-Benz R&D North America CEO Johann Jungwirth explains that its cars can be connected to driver’s Nest thermostat, predicting an arrival time and ensuring heating levels are optimum for when the consumer arrives home – a palpable benefit for any user.

Tesla is attempting to dial up the practical value of its own connectivity offering. The company’s founder Elon Musk has attempted to tackle the “range anxiety” felt by some drivers of electric cars, worried they will become stranded with an empty battery. An ‘over-the-air’ software upgrade issued in March allows the vehicle to alert drivers when they are out of range of charging stations, helping them to make smarter decisions.

The adoption of connected cars will be driven by manufacturers who understand the needs of drivers while they are on-the-go. Smart brands will open up the car as a platform to a wider network of partners, help those partners deliver a consistently great user experience, and wait for consumers to lap it up with as much gusto as they have mobile and tablet technology.

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