"Networked vehicle" image via Shutterstock
“Networked vehicle” image via Shutterstock

Businesses and consumers are embracing a mobile experience for entertainment and information nearly everywhere, from devices and applications to the connected home to social networks. Yet there is a last bastion of holdouts in our increasingly “always on” mobile lifestyle—our cars.
Though roadblocks exist, the car’s time has come. Both the mobile and automotive industries have finally reached a critical, defining moment to create and deliver an unprecedented mobile platform: the networked vehicle.
Why Now?
This burgeoning business and technology disruption is being driven by a rapidly-changing mobile technology marketplace and the increasing demand of drivers to communicate in their cars.
Consumer demand is approaching a zenith as the “app culture” becomes part of our daily lives. Recent research from Johnson Controls indicates that 84% of surveyed vehicle owners would like to control the features in their auto via a touch-screen infotainment system and 67% would like to download apps directly to their vehicle. The frequently cited Connected Car Report 2013, commissioned by Telefonica and compiled by Machina Research, predicts that by 2022 the connected car market will be worth $422 billion, up from $22 billion in 2012, and that nearly every car in 2020 will have built-in connectivity.
The general automotive landscape is ripe for disruption. Several trends and developments are supporting software development for the car. The automotive parts-supplier and chipset community (e.g., Intel and nVidia) are continuing to innovate and provide reference platforms and toolkits for automotive companies. Several partnerships also have been put in place over the past years—GM and AT&T, Daimler and Deutsche Telekom, to name two.
At the same time, developers are clamoring to build for the automotive platform.  Telecommunications carriers, for their part, see expansion possibilities beyond the saturated work and home markets. For sustainable growth in the ecosystem and maximum impact, the automotive companies will need to assume a leadership role in establishing industry consensus on how new services and applications should be created, with safety top of mind.
Safety First
The vision for a networked car is in its infancy; most current services are siloed and are controlled by individual automotive manufacturers. With the incredible market opportunities and demand for new app and communication options, what is holding up innovation? The biggest roadblock is the extremely valid concern among both regulators and activists about distracted driving and manufacturers’ awareness that they are responsible for producing safe cars. Yet this hasn’t prevented the industry from developing applications that provide navigation, music, and basic infotainment.
Drivers continue to feel compelled to reach for their devices despite laws, regulations, and basic safety. It’s because their communication needs are not being adequately met in the car. The desire to be connected, even while driving, will inevitably continue to grow. Manufacturers must innovate and develop quickly, especially as safety concerns mount. The allure of checking “just this one” text is too great. Automotive manufacturers must devise a way to deliver as much useful information as possible in the car, without preventing drivers from driving safely and paying attention to their surroundings. The information that is delivered must be both necessary and pertinent.
Crucial to getting the right information to drivers or passengers is awareness of context on the part of in-auto systems, and delivery through a dashboard app or a tethered mobile device. Many sources can provide context: user behavior and preferences, driving conditions, sensors that detect proximity of places and points of interest, among others.  PARC, where I work, has been working on several initiatives to help automotive companies and parts suppliers reach a new level of personalization options for vehicles. Our library of algorithms and years of deep research in behavior and contextual intelligence is guiding us. Instead of drivers finding apps or customizing what they think they need in a vehicle, our work suggests a completely different approach: the car learns from the driver—and tells them what they may need, from the closest restaurant, to the most affordable parking spot, to appropriate communication (including text) delivery.
There are limitless opportunities to begin implementing “smart” delivery, and the technology is available now. Many automotive manufacturers are starting to address these needs, but the conflict between safe driving and the need for connectivity and communication remains a huge challenge. PARC’s contextual intelligence platform enables smart information feeds and prioritization and delivery of messages, including email, Facebook, Twitter, and text. Over time, the vehicle learns to deliver what is most important to the driver (for instance, an urgent text from a spouse), instead of the Facebook message from a casual acquaintance. Most of all, the messages are only delivered when it’s safe.
Conventionally viewed as conservative, the auto industry is ready for true disruption. By embracing the contextually aware networked vehicle, we may just get there.
Jatinder Singh is director of mobile innovation strategy at PARC, a Xerox company.