The car of the future is not about motoring breakthroughs, but about a consumer technology revolution.

The future has a nasty habit of arriving at the bus station when you’re waiting at the airport. Yet, the whole idea had been that you wouldn’t need either once the future arrived with flying cars. I am sorry to have to inform you that the car of the future won’t have wings, and it won’t be able to do your thinking for you. Well, not all of it.

But it will be voice-controlled, have high-speed wireless broadband serving an on-board WiFi hotspot, allow you to download apps, and provide in-car TV and streaming video. It may even have Back to the Future-style lifting doors.

These were a few of the innovations breathlessly announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January. While the Ford Focus Electric was the official car of the show, the Mercedes F125 concept car stole the show with its DeLorean-style lifting doors and James Bond appeal.

It had previously been unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz, and to show what cars could look like in 2025. At CES, it joined the head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, Dr Dieter Zetsche, on stage for his keynote address, both to wow the audience and help him make a point. “Here at CES in Las Vegas there are some people who view the automobile as an accessory to consumer electronics,” he said. “Conversely, at the auto show in Detroit there are many people who view consumer electronics as mere trimmings for the car”.

“Both views miss the point: as much as a smartphone can be far more than just a tool for communication, a smart car can be more than just a means of transportation. Precisely at the interfaces between communication and mobility, vast potential for innovation lies dormant, and we intend to tap it.”

So while there are no wings, there is a technology called DICE, for Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience. It turns the entire windshield into a head-up display, while the dashboard becomes a display band. Both of these “interfaces” display digital information about the vehicle’s surroundings, points of interest, friends, pedestrians and other vehicles – pretty much what your eyes did for you before. The useful thing is that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road, and can control the information provided through gestures. And these are also social cars: not only can you get local news from social networks about your location, but you can stream music from a club that you’re passing, into your car. Why? Because you can. More usefully, said Zetsche, vehicles approaching intersections will be virtually superimposed on the windshield to help avoid danger. More commonly, network information will be used to find parking spots.

He pointed out that secure Internet access in the car was already offered by Mercedes-Benz today in numerous models. The multimedia system COMAND Online offers Mercedes- Benz Apps, like Google Local Search and Google Street View, as well as Facebook. Along with social networking, the feature that is likely to appeal most to the current generation is that, while you are charging your car at “intelligent” charging stations, the charging process can be monitored by smartphone. That is, if we are still using smartphones by then. Not to be outdone, Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Company, was on hand to unveil the new Ford Focus Electric and the Ford Explorer Hybrid. The Focus features similar technology to that offered by Merc, but uses different names: Ford SYNC, MyFord Touch driver connect technology, Intelligent Access with Push Button Start, and Active Park Assist.

The significance of the Ford options, however, is that the technology is not only available in premium vehicles. And that means it could find its way to a car ahead of you in the traffic in the near future. The Focus still needs a bit of connecting and plugging in of accessories to turn it into a Wi-Fi hotspot, but the technology will probably become seamless in future models. Says John Leech, automotive partner at KPMG in the United Kingdom, “The digital revolution does not stop at the car door and today’s consumers expect to be fully connected at the wheel or in the passenger seat. As the worlds of automotive and IT collide, vehicles may ultimately be judged as much on their connectivity as their looks and performance.”

Leech has looked beyond the cool technology, and identified the gap between the manufacturers of the technology and the providers of the content that will help the high tech make sense. “To reap the rewards from a multi-billion pound market, automotive OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) desperately want to own the customer interface, yet face a dilemma over whether to offer ‘open’ access to the Internet from their vehicles. While this gives users the widest possible range of services, it also means losing control of content and associated revenues. The preferred alternative for many is to install proprietary software solutions, yet this entails moving outside of their core competencies and may involve significant investment.

Manufacturers of in-car navigation systems have discovered that such approaches are also a one-way ticket to obsolescence. The typical in-car system costs five To ten times that of a stand-alone GPS device, and is out of date almost as soon as it reaches the showroom floor.

Leech has spotted the mistake, too: “In the fast-paced information and communication industry, development cycles are measured in months or even weeks, which is in stark Contrast to the three to five years it takes to bring out a new car. To keep up with new technology, manufacturers are therefore taking a modular approach, installing small, in-car connectivity units that can be replaced easily and cheaply (like getting a new mobile phone), combined with continuous ‘over the air’ (OTA) software updates.”

His forecasts for the car of the future include “car-to-enterprise” communication, where remote diagnostics enable faults to be indentified and even repaired without leaving the driveway. Then there’s “car-to- Infrastructure with traffic system using vehicles as sensors to identify congestion and divert drivers to clearer routes. After that, “Car-to-car” sounds almost mundane, but that will allow drivers to network with each other to warn of traffic problems. The catch-all “car-to-x” will allow vehicles to communicate with any Internet-capable device, from PCs to TV sets.

And that’s even before we get to the smart grid – the idea of electric cars being part of the electricity grid. Five years ago, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi resigned from German software giant SAP – where he had been earmarked to become the next CEO – and began preparing to execute his vision for mass-market zero-emission vehicles powered by electricity from renewable sources.

He found an unlikely supporter in Israeli President Shimon Peres, whom he met at the Young Global Leaders Forum at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Peres heard Agassi’s presentation, and told him: “If it’s something that you’re serious about, let’s go figure out a way to do it.”
The real challenge was to build not only cars with replaceable batteries, but to develop the charging infrastructure that would make the cars more than just a novelty.

The story of how Agassi and Peres figured out what to do next is told in a landmark book on Israel’s high tech industry, Start-Up Nation, but several new chapters played themselves out in the weeks following this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. At the end of January, Better Place presented a hundred of its employees in Israel with electric cars that could be recharged on a prototype grid. Almost simultaneously, in Copenhagen, Better Place demonstrated how the technology could be used anywhere in the world, when it charged ten Renault Fluence ZE cars on a grid it had built in the city. It is unlikely Better Place will have done away with the need for oil by 2025, but its proof of concept illustrates powerfully how far we have come from a time when cars of the future were confined purely to the realms of science fiction. Not everyone can build an electric grid to bring their visions to life, but almost every manufacturer is trying to leverage consumer enthusiasm for more tech in their cars.

Back at CES, other auto makers eagerly showed off their own cars of the future. Hyundai displayed in-car TV screens; Audi showed off Google Earth and Wi-Fi hotspots in several models; Chrysler unveiled Uconnect, a system that includes voice-controlled navigation and voice commands. And that was even before the array of new, hi-tech audio solutions now being built into the cars. None of these managed to upstage Ford and Mercedes, but they all sent one clear signal: the car can no longer be separated from consumer technology.

By Arthur Goldstuck
Published by Playboy South Africa March 2012