Vehicle styling, speed and looks took the back seat while capabilities driven by GPS, sensors and data were up front at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show’s Connected Car Expo. Privacy and security, distractibility and safety, and human interfaces were all hot issues. The terms connected car and autonomous cars were being used interchangeably, as a continuum of an evolving set of capabilities. The least-asked question: If we build an autonomous vehicle, will it sell or become an expensive niche product? And how will the market respond to mechanical failures or accidents, even if the vehicles are proved to be overall safer and more reliable?
Not Happy with Navigation. With little to individually distinguish car models, auto makers are looking to infotainment to uniquely brand their vehicles. Yet drivers identify navigation and multimedia among the “lower quality” features of their vehicles. While consumers report that the quality of almost all other features of their vehicles are improving, they indicate that the quality of their navigation and multimedia are declining. “The problem is overly complex systems,” reports Renne Stephens of J.D. Power. “Usability is now considered by consumers as a factor of quality.”
Car makers are under enormous pressure to add functionality demanded by consumers, and make the whole experience simpler. Many of the features embraced by automakers have not attracted the interest of drivers. Stephens reports that valued features include surround view camera with rear vision, wireless charging station, near field communication and smartphone field integration. What they don’t value are eye tracking, tactile touch screens, hand gesture control and laser headlights.
Discussions on security were enlivened with the inclusion of hacker Chris Valasek. You may remember that last year Valasek and his partner, Charlie Miller, hacked into the steering and brakes of a Prius and Ford Escape, solely by attaching a laptop to the vehicles. Members of an Israeli intelligence unit reported that they had remotely hacked into a vehicle wirelessly via an aftermarket insurance dongle (in this case, Zubie) that was plugged into the vehicle’s OBDII port. Dongles might make people safer drivers, but could they lead to an unwanted adventure?
Valasek and Miller created a list of the most hackable vehicles with the Jeep Cherokee, Cadillac Escalade and Toyota Prius as the most vulnerable. The Dodge Viper, Audi A8 and Honda Accord top the most secure list. Malicious attacks could range from enabling a microphone to eavesdrop to the catastrophic, such as controlling steering or brakes.
Valasek assured conference goers that hacking vehicles isn’t easy. No matter how many layers of protection are created, no vehicle that communicates with the outside world will be hack-proof. Last month, automakers announced that they are forming a consortium that will be dedicated to deterring “black hat hackers” and will create a venue for the auto industry to share information about hacking attempts.
Dreams and Nightmares. The best-case scenario for the automotive OEMs is a connected vehicle industry in which they control the ecosystem and derive high revenues, as well as driverless cars starting to become common around 2024. In reality, the OEMS may encounter lagging consumer acceptance, perhaps shattered by catastrophic accidents, reliability issues or privacy troubles. Regulation might cause insurmountable constraints. The driverless car could become a niche product and a costly failure.
In another possible scenario, the connected autonomous vehicle becomes a success, but the tech and digital companies win the market with parallels similar to how the PCs took the industry from IBM. The OEMs become a pipeline with little value and the tech companies take home the bacon. If the market fails, the VCs will stop investing and some of these tech companies may fold. The Tesla offers an example of how this scenario might unfold.
Privacy. Automakers are making a commitment to privacy in the vehicle far beyond that made by companies like Apple or Google, which are vying for a piece of connected vehicles. Nineteen automakers just signed a set of principles delivered to the Federal Trade Commission. “Google may want to become an automaker, but we don’t want to become Google,” said Mitch Bainwol of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The OEMs provide assurance that they will not share information from vehicles that is streamed back to automakers or that is downloaded from the vehicle’s computers. They pledge information won’t be handed over to authorities without a court order, sold to insurance or other companies or used to bombard them with ads for Starbucks, gas stations or other businesses they drive past, without their permission.
“You just don’t want your car spying on you,” said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “That’s the practical consequence of a lot of the new technologies that are being built into cars.” The automakers signing on to the principles are: Aston Martin, BMW, Chrysler, Ferrari, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Uptake. About half of us like to drive and the other half just want to get there, reports futurist Peter Schwartz. Younger populations are increasingly in the transport camp, as illustrated by the popularity of Uber, Lyft and Zip Cars. How to win the whole market is to “automate the boring parts of driving,” says Håkan Samuelsson of Volvo.”
J.D. Powers reports that consumers perceive the autonomous vehicle as a driver completely detached from the driving experience. This isn’t too close to the reality that is within reach; the driver will need to be engaged and ready to assume control when called upon. But the dream of catching a few winks on the way to work is a good one. Will this vision be led by Detroit or Silicon Valley? We should find out soon.