We are all Knight Rider now - M2M in the automotive sector

I'm currently working my way through our M2M forecasts for the our forthcoming report on the automotive sector and it seems to be one of the most uncertain sectors. Notwithstanding some of the established issues (such as the implications of the eCall directive and technology choices between 2G, 3G and 4G) there is one other that stands out as being particularly complicated and important: the role of the vehicle platform. By that I mean the on-board computer that provides an interface with some or all of the connectivity applications on the car. They're increasingly common on new cars and GM's OnStar has been successful in North America blending navigation, security, emergency and communications apps. Other manufacturers have established their own equivalents. GM has even sought to spread the virtues of OnStar to other car buyers through an aftermarket model launched in early 2011.

However, this is all rather reminiscent of the mobile phone world 10 years ago with proprietary OSes with relatively basic functionality gradually giving way to smartphones. And what an almighty ding-dong that's been. Vendors with strong OSes prospered (Nokia - until recently), while those with terrible OSes plummeted (bye bye Moto). I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to claim that the fortunes of motor manufacturers will rise and fall based on what their vehicle platform looks like. But, if anything, that exacerbates the issue. Car manufacturers needn't really worry too much if their vehicle platform is the most sophisticated. Their cars will probably sell anyway. There won't be a survival of the fittest where OSes rise and fall due to their relative superiority to the competition (I'm looking at you Symbian). A manufacturer can plough on with something fairly primitive. But that is a missed opportunity to give car buyers a really appealing connected experience in the car.

Some of the questions yet to be resolved are as follows:
  • Despite what I've written above, will users start to differentiate between cars based on platform experience and feature-set? It's an important part of the user experience and maybe it doesn't fit well with a premium car experience to have an on-board computer that acts like a Star-Tac (sorry, I'm having a bit of a go at Moto today seemingly!) rather than an iPhone.

  • Is it going to be a walled-garden or can we expect a plethora of third party application developers? Wouldn't you rather have access to your Skype account from the car rather than having yet another phone number? Will the vehicle manufacturers accept this?

  • Hand-in-hand with the above goes a question of whether most cars will have a single connection with multiple applications running on it or one connection per application? Would it make sense for a black-box style eCall module to be anything other than a stand-alone device? Will insurers want their own dedicated device for pay-as-you-drive? Strangely, although it's far from a perfect analogy, the thing that springs to mind here is Knight Rider. Clearly KITT had a very advanced voice-activated AI UI. So why did it (I hesitate to use the word "he") need a "Turbo Boost" button? I guess you just don't rely on the vehicle platform for some applications!

  • Does it make sense to draft in an established operating system rather than rely on a proprietary one? Windows? Apple iOS? Android? Will you get a choice or will different marques adopt different OSes?

  • Will people use the vehicle platform just as an interface and control everything from their mobile phones, circumventing the need for a sophisticated car platform at all, leaving said platform simply to simply carry out remote diagnostics and send manufacturer servicing alerts.
All of these questions are intertwined. If, for example, control of the car platform is managed through the handset with individual rather than vehicle specifications, this has implications for how car insurers might shape their products. Are you insuring the car or the driver?
One thing seems certain and to misquote the old McCarthy* song: "We are all Knight Rider now".

This vehicle platform issue is just one of many that I'm addressing as part of the research for Machine-to-Machine (M2M) Communication in the Automotive Sector 2010-20 to be published in June. Drop me a line if you're interested to know more.

*It's called "We Are All Bourgeoise Now" and if you haven't heard it, you should.