Column: Your Car is About to Get Smarter

Cars have lagged when it comes to connected tech; Cameron Wykes says that's changing

Mobile and on-board technology will soon connect cars to a better driving experience

My car, like most newer cars, has a decent stereo, bum warmers and Bluetooth for my phone connection. It even has an interactive display that shows what song I am listening to and the outside temperature. With just over two hours of commuting each day, I need some creature comforts to make the sojourn more tolerable.

Almost as much as I love new technology, I love my car. But my car is dumb. Why is this still the case?

With technology’s ongoing invasion of seemingly every sector, cars still seem to be playing catch up. Don’t get me wrong, smartphone-to-vehicle tethering has really accelerated connectivity, but relying only on our phones to keep us connected to the real world of information is great for your distracted passenger – not so much for you, the driver. (That would be my ‘do not text and drive’ safety message. Okay, moving on.)

With a (pun ahead) driving desire to make that commute a lot easier, I have been researching what’s down the road for car technology. Within the next few years, drivers everywhere will see their respective commutes as a more personalized and engaging part of their day. (Consensus among friends who work on automotive brands is that it takes an average of two years to get car design changes from concept to production.)

Look at it this way: mobile phones used to be just one thing – phones – but a few small developments brought on monumental cultural changes. Adding memory let users save phone numbers, and “cell phones” shrank down to pocket size. This led many to realize that a “phone” could also be a PDA, and by the late nineties, the devices had become smart.

In this context, cars are on the cusp of becoming a whole lot smarter.

Terms like “frictionless” or “transparent” are the buzz words regarding the latest cooperative functionality between the in-vehicle system and your smartphone. Now that all the major smartphone operating systems are able to support background processes, automakers will be able to provide functionality that happens almost as if by magic when the owner enters the car.

For example: if Dan and Nicky both have profiles saved for their shared vehicle, custom preferences based on who’s driving could be loaded into the car in real-time over Bluetooth or WiFi. Seat positioning, radio station presets, mp3 playlists and custom suspension could be loaded on a driver-by-driver basis when they open the door. The passenger gets customized temperature control and a say over what’s on the radio.

(AutoTeather for Android is a great example of this technology.)

But I think the biggest advancement in auto tech will come from the adoption of “Contextual Awareness” technology. These kinds of platforms combine geofencing (think GPS with specific perimeters that cue certain actions), preference/interest awareness, personal data awareness (i.e. texting, email and calendar) and image recognition to provide real-time information and engagement to drivers.

Picture this: it’s 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. As you pull out of your driveway, the car knows by the time and date that you are likely heading to work. So it checks your email and texts to see if there are any priority messages, reading them to you over your sound system. Upon merging onto the highway, the car scans local traffic data to see where there are potential trouble spots and reroutes your navigation system to get you to the office faster. At the end of the day, your car’s smart system communicates with your home automation system and tells you that the kids have arrived home. Through mobile purchase behavior preferences, it knows that Mondays are pizza night, so it pulls up your previous mobile pizza order and provides the vendor an ideal pick up time based upon your distance from the pizza joint.

For a quick primer on this sort of technology, Gimbal’s short video on its product does the trick.

Looking ahead, I believe we will see a greater focus on both automotive experience apps not only for your smartphone, but for your car’s own operating system. Think of a software infrastructure like the iTunes App Store but built specifically to enhance and completely customize your in-car experience. While BMW (iDrive), Ford (Sync) and others already have unique operating systems for their vehicles, you can see how – like the smartphone market – software infrastructure and ease of use will likely play a bigger role in car preference and, in-turn, purchase behavior.

My two-hour commute isn’t going to be the brightest part of my day, but hopefully it will soon become a bit smarter.

Cameron Wykes is the Chief Invention Officer at KBS+

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