The Car, The Phone And The Platform

Who needs a car to do this?

Who needs a car to do this? (courtesy: General Motors)

I remember the first flashes of the technological blossoming we are currently living through, in the five formative years I spent growing up just South of California’s Silicon Valley. Though we were hardly a technology-focused family (the television was kept in a wardrobe), my dad already had his first 8086 “laptop” PC by the time we moved to Los Gatos in 1987. Some time around second grade I remember a friend showing me something called “Prodigy,” which he claimed had allowed him to “accidentally” place an order for a bulk volume of dog food through his home computer. But the most convincing evidence that we were living on the cusp of a glorious future was my father’s Mercedes 300E. I was, of course, to young to truly appreciate the car itself, but inside the leather-scented bank vault of its interior were hidden great technological wonders of the age: a Sony Watchman portable TV and a car phone. To my young mind, such extravagant connectivity was undeniable proof that we already living in the future.

More than twenty years later, it’s remarkable how far those then-high-tech talismans were from the actual future. Both television and telephony are rapidly being subsumed by the internet, the cathode ray tube is as dead as the eight track and having either a telephone or a television physically attached to your vehicle is absurd in the modern technological environment (with the possible exception of the flip-down video system babysitters offered in minivans and CUVs). Though Dad’s early 90s TV executive toolkit was a harbinger of our hyper-connected, screen-centric, distracted driving-plagued age, it was a vision of the future seen through a glass, darkly.

The revolution in connectivity and computing power of the last twenty years has long since wiped away the Watchman and car phone (not to mention Prodigy), and increasingly consumers find themselves distracted from their cars by high-tech devices, both in the literal sense and in economic and cultural terms. For automakers already navigating intense global competition, finding relevance in the information age (or at the very least, an accommodation with it)  is a critical challenge to long-term viability.

Unfortunately, the auto industry too often finds itself at economic and cultural loggerheads with information technology. On a fundamental level, the high-tech device world has stolen the auto world’s thunder with consumers by replacing cars as a primary tool of social interaction and popular item of conspicuous consumption; though the auto industry has made significant technological developments in the last 20 years, they simply don’t register with consumers in the same way as developments among smartphones, tablets and the networks that enable them. But rather than recognize that the technological shift has deep economic as well as cultural roots (most notably wage and job stagnation for developed-market youth), some automakers have sought to control or co-opt communication technology… often with disastrous results.

In the US market, Ford seemed to epitomize the earliest conflicts between car and cell phone. The problems associated with distracted driving and texting while driving began hitting the public consciousness after it released its SYNC hands-free system, the first of its kind on the US car market, and reached a crescendo as its MyFordTouch debuted. In addition to making the automaker a lightning rod for the distracted driving issue, the complexity and bugs that plagued MyFordTouch actually drove the brand’s quality ratings down. By moving first to accommodate technological innovations to the traditional car model, Ford demonstrated that  the cutting edge could cut both ways.

Now, General Motors is the latest automaker to tempt the technological fates by rolling out 4G cellular data service for its vehicles. Like the option to equip a tablet with an AT&T data plan, GM’s offer will allow customers to pay what are essentially AT&T’s standard rates for data transmission over a car’s built-in WiFi hotspot. According to GM’s release

74 percent of tablets sold this year will be Wi-Fi only and as many as 91 percent in North America will be used with Wi-Fi as their only connection, meaning some cellular-enabled tablets do not have an active data plan. In most cases, OnStar’s 4G LTE and Wi-Fi hardware come as standard equipment.

The fact that GM sees this statistic as their market niche tells you everything about how misguided its in-car connectivity crusade is. Research shows that phones are the primary connectivity device, especially among young people, whereas tablets more typically replace computers for certain tasks among older generations. At least a quarter of tablet owners also have smartphones, and an increasing number of smartphones can be used as WiFi hotspots, in the unlikely event that there isn’t a nearby Starbucks to park at. Moreover, if you agree to a two-year data contract with AT&T they will simply give you “certified like-new” 4G WiFi hotspot for free… which you can then take anywhere you want.

GM’s key innovations in this fast-changing technological environment are to 1) not allow users to remove their 4G Wifi hotspot from their car and 2) not allow users to upgrade said hotspot without replacing their entire car… hardly the unique selling points the market is crying out for. Unless car-top antennae deliver a dramatic real-world improvement over the competition available from cellular carriers, GM’s 4G experiment will end up going the way of the car phone.  But from the perspective of GM’s executives, steeped in Detroit arrogance, these are innovations which make the venerable OnStar system a “platform onto which you can build additional services.” The disconnect between automakers desire to bend communication technology to the car and the fact that the momentum suggests the opposite is more likely to occur has never been more stark.

In the short term, the auto industry has few good options for managing the conflict between the car and communication technology. I’m not up on the latest developments, but my sympathies have always been with systems like Nokia’s “Terminal Mode” which essentially treat a car’s display as a receptacle for the smartphone’s technology. Because car companies can’t stop the smartphone from becoming the primary device of information-age consumers, they should swallow their pride and engineer their cars to work around whatever device the consumer has. Like it or not, the smartphone is the “platform” and the car is the application. Only by accepting that reality can automakers progress to the ultimate reconciliation of cars with the information age: autonomous drive technology.

It may not be what automakers want to hear, but you can’t fight the future.