The connected car at a crossroads: why consolidation is critical for long-term success

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The connected car at a crossroads: why consolidation is critical for long-term success

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Posted By Pranish Kumar
Group Program Manager, Windows Embedded Automotive

Since the mid 90’s, car makers and technology vendors have been searching for ways to help drivers become better connected and to enrich the in-car infotainment experience – a concept that’s epitomized by the connected car.

Much of the technology to create connected cars is currently in place. And millions of evolved vehicles are already on the road. Yet these are a mere shadow of what’s ultimately possible through the collective power of technological breakthroughs like the cloud, machine learning, natural language processing and data analytics.

At Microsoft we have a clear vision for the driving experience of tomorrow and how it could impact our day-to-day lives. And as we set out to develop the future automotive platform we discovered that it was more than building a connected car.  We need a car which adapts to each user, knows our behaviors, understands that driver’s workload and delivers high value services; we need an intelligent car.

However, today’s in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) ecosystem is exceedingly fractured, with dozens of hardware, software and services technologies – many of which are within a single carmaker’s product portfolio. Under these conditions, carmakers are already hampered in their ability to deliver a truly connected and intelligent car to their markets.

Perhaps history can show us the way forward.

Consider the control layout of a car. It’s expected today that the gas pedal is on the floor to the right, and the brake pedal to its left, but this was not the case in the early 1900’s. When you want to turn on your radio, your hand goes instinctively to where it is on the dash; and you know the turn signal is always the stalk on the left side of the steering column. But again, none of these things were true during the first 30-50 years of the automotive industry.

Reaching this level of consistency didn’t happen overnight. Car companies designed a variety of vehicle cockpits before they coalesced on consistency for the layout of vehicle controls. Once in place, these standards went a long way toward creating more cost-efficient supply chains, making driving more approachable to the mass market and improving driver safety, as well as the overall driving experience.

Meanwhile, we have yet to reach one consistent, familiar approach for designing the intelligent car. Instead, you see a variety of car infotainment options based on close to a dozen IVI platforms, one of which is Windows Embedded Automotive. And each automotive manufacturer creates multiple versions of their technology, which fractures the market even further and reduces the incentive for service and application providers to develop for any one platform.

We’ve seen the same consolidation across the tech industry. Since first entering the mainstream, numerous platforms have been available on the market – many of which are no longer in business. Whether PC, mobile or tablet, the most successful platforms are each part of a larger consumer device infrastructure that’s supported by a global company, which offers timely updates and support.  Collectively, this has fostered a healthy ecosystem for creating third-party applications and led to a richer experience for the user.

For the intelligent car to reach its fullest potential there must be a consolidation that accrues to a standard set of technologies, platforms and experiences, not unlike previous evolutions of vehicle systems.

Ultimately, we expect that intelligent car technologies will help to redefine the driving experience and create a whole new generation of car owners. By 2018, Information Handling Services (IHS) estimates that worldwide sales of the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems that help power the intelligent car will approach 80 million units annually, an increase of 50 million from its current level.

To remain viable, they will need to integrate with a consumer’s connected life, to provide the information and services they’re expecting to roam with them from device to device, and to deliver the experiences they’ve become accustomed to using across their devices, all while delivering personalized and context-specific apps, services and information as they’re driving.

Apps and services will be an important part of helping car makers differentiate themselves. For developers, the decision about which platform to build on boils down to the number of users, the global scalability of the platform and whether it can be extended into other areas of the consumer’s life.

And for car makers, a critical component about which platform they adopt will be its ability to help them collect and analyze telematics data about driver behavior and vehicle performance across its entire fleet. In the ideal scenario, car makers will be able to use that data to develop more targeted updates, which could then be installed remotely to help car and driver operate at peak performance.

As we set out to build the driving experience of the future, the winnowing process of market dynamics is sure to play a key role. In fact, shifts in the industry are just around the corner, and perhaps have already begun.

To reduce the unsustainable costs of constant research and development required to support a plethora of platforms, car makers will increasingly look to companies that have the global scale, consumer devices infrastructure and deep expertise across critical areas such as application development and data management and analysis.

Only then will car makers and their partners have a sustainable, streamlined process that fosters the invention and ambition of the broader industry, and captures the loyalty and imagination of tomorrow’s consumer.

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