An Appstore for your Car?

Scott Francis
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I just read an article in Fortune Magazine (my favorite offline read for flights or other times when I can’t be online), in which Michael Copeland argues that we need a revamping of the computing of autos.  As he points out, GPS and voice-recognition and even bluetooth phone integration are so last decade already (hey, we’re only two months from 2010!). He makes the case that autos need to be providing much more robust application capabilities, along with an app store for buying applications for your car.  He refers to cars as one of the most popular mobile devices (well, mobile and motive, actually).  As such, “automakers need to start acting more like consumer electronics companies if they don’t want to cede one of their last great opportunities to Apple, Research in Motion, or Google.” And then… “More screens are showing up in automobiles.  Wouldn’t it be great if those screens became home to a flood of car-appropriate applications?” The short answer is, no.  At least, not if these applications are delivered the way in-dash navigation computers were delivered to autos over the last decade.  I recall when I bought my last car.  During a stop at the Acura dealership to check out the TSX and TL, the salesperson gave me a long pitch regarding the resale value of a car with navigation.  As I recall him saying then: “These days, people just expect a navigation system in their car.  If you’re trying to sell a used car without that navigation system in 2 years, the resale value just won’t be there as much.”  Well.  I have a different opinion.  Find a friend with a 5 year old car with a built-in navigation system.  Those systems look comical today compared to a modern Garmin or TomTom or Magellan handheld system, and they make the car look dated and unsophisticated.  Moreover, the cost even just 3 years ago was approximately $2000 for that navigation system option package.  An off-the-shelf portable GPS navigation system was barely $250 even then, and much better devices are available for similar prices now… I think the auto computer is like the old car phones.  They were vastly overpriced, and antiquated long before the car stopped being drivable, because the pace of technology changes for cellular phones was so much faster than the pace of change for cars.  Fast forward to the 2000’s.  The pace of change in navigation systems has dramatically outpaced the change in cars.  The pace of change in phones has outpaced both the rate of change in cars *and* the rate of change of navigation systems – to the extent that if you buy an iPhone or Android phone today, it can be your navigation system.  That in-dash navigation system is already a dinosaur if you bought it yesterday, and it will only look worse as time goes on. No, give me a car where the technology is completely transparent to me as a driver.  Bluetooth integration and voice recognition is a good example.  If it goes out of vogue, I can shut it off, and there will be no visible sign of its antiquity.  Technology to improve my driving experience is transparent to me.  A better radio (satellite or otherwise) is largely transparent as long as the interface can still be a relatively basic digital or analog display.  I once drove a BMW z4 that had this aesthetic just right – knobs instead of buttons where ever possible, and a very subtle “computer” on the instrument panel whose sole purpose was to tell me stats about mileage and maintenance.  That car’s dash will look good 20 years from now.  Had I bought that Acura TL or TSX 3 years ago, I’d no doubt be kicking myself now, because my phone does all that.  And because the GPS would soon look like Atari Pong. I think the right answer for Autos is technology enablement.  To the extent possible, expose APIs for interesting diagnostic information that could be displayed by third party devices or applications.  Provide a standard space on the dash that could hold a third-party or after-market device for displaying such stats. Build an upgradeable platform into your vehicles so that the parts that have a high rate of change can be inexpensively swapped out as technology improves – with the dealership network and car companies taking a slice of the revenues every time customers go through the upgrade cycles.  If you want to provide technology baked into the driving or passenger experience, make it transparent, and make it trend-friendly by doing a little future-proofing. Auto manufacturers have to remember the upgrade cycle for cars is a lot longer than for computers (9-11 years versus 2-3 years for computers and similar devices), and the designs of technology in automobiles just have to take this into account in order to preserve style and resale value down the road. Unfortunately, if the car phones and navigation systems are any guide – when (if) we do get an App store for automobiles, it will cost $2000 for the option to make it available, and about $500 per application.  Let’s hope this time the car guys get it right! (And let’s hope the tech is transparent… otherwise we’ll see more texting-style car accidents)

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