Computers with a car app

electric-car-chargingWe are in heady times when it comes to automotive technology. The media is abuzz with stories of self-driving cars and auto-pilot capabilities.

The distances that fully-electric cars can drive without a recharge are growing longer, and will eventually approach parity with gas-driven and hybrid models.

Conveniences like tethering with drivers’ smartphones, providing on-board Wi-Fi, and automatically contacting help when an accident happens are being added with each new car model.

Features that used to be high-end are increasingly showing up in less expensive vehicles, including automatic braking, GPS, and Bluetooth LE.

Pretty soon, cars are going to be referred to as computers that just happen to have automotive capabilities. A car app, if you will.

Rapidly changing automotive landscape

And here’s the interesting thing. The automotive landscape as we know it today is in for a major overhaul. Conventional auto makers—Ford, Toyota, GM, Chrysler, etc.—are increasingly going to be challenged by technology companies.driverless-car

Ten years from now, we’ll be driving Apple, Alphabet (Google), and Tesla models alongside Ford, GM—and who knows?

That’s the billion dollar question. It’s very realistic to imagine that some manufacturers we know and love today will be gone. Here’s the deal: If you can’t compete in automotive software, then you’ll be relegated to oblivion.

Of course, there are still naysayers that discount the chances of Silicon Valley breaking into the automotive world successfully. The industry is too entrenched. There’s too much potential liability. The number of manufacturers is getting smaller, not bigger. It’s hard to make a meaningful profit.

Today’s cars are damn good, but…

Today, cars are as good as they’ve ever been. I’m driving a 2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid that is well-built and has been trouble-free. Plus, it gets very good gas mileage. As I approach the car, it senses my key and automatically unlocks the door. It has a nice entertainment unit that connects to my iPhone through Bluetooth LE as soon as I start the engine.

car-touchscreenI can use the iPhone’s GPS app to navigate my trips, listen to an unlimited supply of streaming music, and on long trips, charge my phone by plugging into an available USB port on the dashboard.

Even with all that goodness, the Camry is starting to feel a bit dated, particularly when I read about Tesla, for example, downloading new software to its vehicles, so that customers can take advantage of brand new features, such as auto-pilot.

The Tesla capability to provide upgrades to its vehicles over time adds tremendous value and delights its customers. That’s the same model that Apple uses for its iPhones and iPads, and it seems completely intuitive bringing software upgrades to the automotive world.

The features I have in my Toyota are the only features I’ll ever have. And it still requires fossil fuel.

Period of retrenchment for the auto industry

What we’re seeing today is a period of retrenchment for the automotive industry’s standard bearers.ford-fusion

What it is not is whistling past the graveyard. Industry titans are well aware that Apple, Google, and Tesla offer threats to their business model—frenemies, if you will—and they are not standing still.

General Motors, for one, has been upping its own ante in the electric car market. While the Chevy Volt has been available for a few years now, it is fairly expensive and has a short trip range. However, at CES this year, GM showed off the 2017 Bolt, its all-electric (EV) model, and it shows a lot of promise, upping its trip range to 200 miles and adding a number of amenities.

Ford has been in the game for a few years now with its Fusion Hybrid, which approaches 45 MPG in a roomy four-door form factor. This year, Ford announced its Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, which features a 7.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery for an expected range of 19 miles using electric power only. The car automatically switches over to its gasoline engine when the battery is depleted.

Chrysler recently announced its 2017 Pacifica minivan, a plug-in hybrid that gets up to 80 MPG in city driving, 30 MPG overall, while continuing to offer the full-size eight-passenger cabin popular with soccer moms and large families. Nothing super-sexy, but progress, nonetheless.

And let’s not forget the innovations coming out of Germany, South Korea, Japan, and China.

Movement in the right direction

Emerging innovations, and their increasing rate, show impressive movement in the right direction. But almost all automobile manufacturers are still fully in the game when it comes to gasoline-powered vehicles.

green-carsOne might think that, with the free-falling price of oil these days, all the electric car hoopla is nonsense, or at most, unnecessary.

Consumers, I think, disagree. We want to see continued innovation in the EV space. Given the many threats posed by climate change, an increasing number of people want to move to a future where alternative energy becomes the norm, and petroleum-based solutions fall by the wayside.

With the iPhone, I walk around with a computer in my pocket. That computer just happens to have a phone app. I recharge it overnight and I’m good to go the next day.

Can’t wait to have a fully-functional computer that I recharge overnight and the next morning get into and drive away in—quietly and with no hydrocarbons. How cool will that be?

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