CES 2010: What does the future hold for the car?

We’ve spent the past two days at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as automakers have laid out plans for the next ten years of in-car information and entertainment. Put together, it’s a bit of Orwell, a touch of the Jetsons, and a lot of Internet and the mobile phone. Expect the following principles to direct changes to the automobile in the coming years.

Navigation is no longer king. In addition to the fact that no one wants to pay $2000 for a $200 product, simple navigation will become less important as drivers demand smarter services. In the near future, navigation we be a mere subcomponent of location-based services, as drivers want more interaction with their immediate vicinity. Choosing a restaurant could involve reading the ten most recent customer reviews, checking the today’s specials, and then finding the cheapest parking within a quarter-mile.

Drivers will also demand features beyond the location services offered by in-car computers. A key extension of that will be a requirement that infotainment systems are easily modified and updated for the fresh technology and applications that are available just six months after buying a new car. The price of entry for such systems may still be four figures, but consumers won’t be buying for the navigation function, they’ll be seeking customizable, connected experiences.

Targeted advertising in your car. No one will readily admit it right now, but automakers, suppliers, and content providers are all thinking about new revenue streams based on delivering advertisements in the car. Looking for a restaurant in the area? Expect some sponsored destinations at the top of the list. Ask for directions to the mall? A digital coupon for a specific store could appear on your dash to be transferred to your cell phone. Frightening? Maybe. There are certainly privacy concerns to be addressed and some may decry the further intrusion of advertising into their lives. On the other hand, ad-supported content may allow drivers to have services that they otherwise wouldn’t be willing to pay a subscription for.
Cars connected to the Internet. No surprise here. Internet connectivity will bring more entertainment and information options. Expect streaming audio, video, and TV to dominate entertainment. One company gave us a live demonstration of an in-car entertainment system streaming “Transformers” from an employee’s home server thousands of miles away.

Steve Millstein, president of ATX telematics, made a case for automakers paying to keep their cars connected to the network. Millstein said that over the life of a car, automakers can find a $3000 to $5000 benefit if they can track how owners use their cars. By understanding driving behaviors, feature use, and vehicle condition, the car companies have opportunities in marketing and servicing vehicles and designing next-generation cars. His point is valid, but manufacturers likely won’t have a problem finding people willing to pay for connectivity services while vehicle data piggybacks off that data stream.

Cars connected to each other. By communicating with other cars in the area, you can expect better traffic alerts and warnings if cars ahead are using headlights or windshield wipers, or have been switched into a winter mode.

Cars connected to infrastructure.
Similar to car-to-car communications, a car-to-infrastructure network could improve the efficiency of traffic. Construction sites could actively report their conditions, notifying drivers how many lanes are open at any given time. Cars could also talk with traffic lights, so that as vehicles approach an empty intersection the green light would be set to reduce idling time.

Chasing the cell phone. Automakers know that their cars need to mimic the cell phone in some aspects, but there’s some confusion in just how to execute that. Some want their systems to be comprehensive computers capable of performing all functions without connecting a mobile phone. Others think it’s too much of a stretch to make consumers learn and invest in two different technologies, and want their systems to lean on the computing power of the phone. Whatever the solution is, expect automakers to continually borrow concepts from the mobile industry, which has much more influence when it comes to introducing technology.