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Automotive Industry (R)evolution in the Digital Age

Simon Floyd, Director of Business Development & Strategy for PLM Solutions-Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing Industry, Microsoft
Simon Floyd, Director of Business Development & Strategy for PLM Solutions-Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing Industry, Microsoft

Simon Floyd, Director of Business Development & Strategy for PLM Solutions-Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing Industry, Microsoft

It’s easy to have an affinity for the automotive industry. Vehicles are a reflection of our society: their style, their features, and their utility. They are the embodiment of our past, our present and our future. We have a fascination with vehicles because they are so fundamental. When new vehicle is designed, it must cater to the complexity of a changing society. This is why the automotive industry must innovate constantly or face diminishing value and relevancy.

The innovation challenge is significant and daunting but also extraordinarily exciting. While one can argue that the common car hasn’t really changed in over 100 years, after all they still have 4 wheels and a cabin, one can argue that they are changing rapidly and evolving. The truth of the matter is that the cars of today are remarkably advanced. Their structures are a wonder of engineering and materials. Their engines are increasingly efficient, electric or hybrid. They are managed by embedded computer systems that increase efficiency, safety and reliability. In some cases, they have systems dedicated to entertainment or to connect our many devices for convenience, access to information or just to communicate safely while driving.

The connection to our digital lives, and the influence of living in an internet connected society are catalysts for the single biggest opportunity in the automotive industry. To go beyond the single vehicle experience to community of drivers; to create an experience that is of benefit to society. Taking advantage of this opportunity is challenging. It requires us to think about vehicles the same way we think about other devices in our lives. It forces a great collision between the world of information technology and the automotive industry, making it subject to trends such as social, mobile, big data, cloud computing and the internet of things. These are the trends that will greatly influence the vehicles of tomorrow.

"Rather than sensors being used to uncover unsafe or risky conditions, they can be used to enhance the experience"

The Internet of Things: Intelligent Systems in Vehicles

It’s almost inconceivable to discover that there are more devices in our lives than people. In 2014 we are a race of 7.2 Billion individuals and live in a world of an estimated 10 Billion devices that is expected to each 50 Billion by 2020. Even if these estimates are grossly overstated, they still represent a significant trend. Today, you may own a car that has integrated services via a satellite connection. These services focus on vehicle maintenance, safety, directions and entertainment. Some systems additionally interact with sensors to report distance, provide live images or video and can super impose guidance for maneuvering or perform automated parallel parking. While these are useful, and indeed impressive, they are point solutions to relatively small scale problems. A much bigger problem to solve, such as traffic management or fuel/power efficiency routing is far more valuable because it impacts more than just an individual.

Consider how the problem of traffic congestion could be solved when a system of vehicles can intelligently work together in order to manage speed, distance and volume. It would require the ability to compute enormous volumes of data from multiple sources, consider social feedback and importantly build patterns and predictive models that would provide intelligent and reliable recommendations. It would be a driver’s service. A service powered by a system that could learn, recommend and evolve– quickly.

Like many great ideas, it is subject to real world parameters such as cost. Would the average driver agree to pay for such as service? Could it even be built and sustained over time? The answer may lie in treating vehicles less like assets for  transportation and more like devices with services. Perhaps in the future, drivers will subscribe to their vehicles, complete with services in a similar fashion to how we source media and telecommunications. While rethinking vehicles as a subscription to a system of services may seem like science fiction’s answer to automotive innovation, it’s entirely possible. The industry, as a whole, just needs to think about the automotive experience differently by thinking about it collectively, rather than individually.

Assisting the Modern Driver

If you are an automotive fan, and interested in autonomous driving, then several movies and TV shows probably come to mind. In the late 60s and 70s, Herbie, a Volkswagen Beetle, entertained us with his ability to understand the driver and people around him. In the 80’s, a talking Pontiac Firebird Trans Am called KITT captured our imagination by being interactive, self-driving and protective. In each case, the vehicle represented not only takes commands from a person, it can understand them at some level. These vehicles are anthropomorphic. This is a new frontier for automotive innovation. The ability for a vehicle to understand something pertinent about the driver is incredibly valuable.

In the gaming industry, the use of sensors to understand players is growing in popularity. These sensors can not only  translate our movements into commands for controlling games, but can report emotional responses such as an increase in heart rate, body temperature and even agitation or excitement. When applied in an automotive context and combined with the system approach, sensors can provide valuable insights. For instance, if a driver is excessively distracted, or perhaps fatigued, the vehicle can respond accordingly to ensure safety is maintained. If the driver is demonstrating fear or concern caused by narrow mountain roads the vehicle can provide reassuring additional visual aids to assist driving.

While safety is the first and most important aspect of driving, there is also room for making it enjoyable and entertaining. Rather than sensors being used to uncover unsafe or risky conditions, they can be used to enhance the experience. They could aid in averting boredom with entertainment, identify the need for a more scenic route to entice the senses, or trigger the display of interesting statistics about vehicle dynamics to appeal to the enthusiast.

The possibilities are exciting and importantly, are not out of reach or even too futuristic, because we can find examples of  how existing technologies are being applied or developed in other industries. The newest generation was born into a largely digital world. Their first photograph was digital and shared via social media to a community. Their first experience in a car however was established a decade before they were born. It should therefore be no surprise that the newest generation will demand a digitally connected vehicle because anything else simply won’t match their lifestyle or expectation. If innovation truly is the match between a problem and a solution, then innovation is within reach and it exists within a system.

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