Smart Cars: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going?

Fifteen years ago, the dot-com bubble imploded. Naysayers and traditional business types struggling with ridiculous stock valuations and newfangled measures (read: clicks, eyeballs, and the like) felt vindicated. Sure, a few successful companies emerged from the boom, but far more startups back then resembled Kozmo.com and Pets.com than Amazon, Google, and eBay.

It's certainly tempting to look back at first Internet era through the lens of "many vs. few" false dichotomy: the hundreds of "disruptive" companies that went poof and the titans that remain today. Either very publicly or behind the scenes, most companies have significantly altered their business models, internal processes, and information technology. Those that didn't get on board with the Internet era quickly enough quickly became historical footnotes. (Been to a Blockbuster Video lately?)


Not Your Father's Car


Perhaps no industry has undergone more change in the last five years--never mind the prior 15 --than the auto industry. Forget
and incredibly expensive, now rudimentary navigation systems such as ProNav (now Garmin). Those advents now seem quaint by comparison to both what has arrived and, more important, what is quickly coming.

To be sure, you can still hop into a traditional, human-controlled, app-free, and gas-powered car to take you from Point A to Point B. That won't change tomorrow or next year. It's not hard to foresee that the days of "dumb" automobiles, though, are clearly going the way of the Dodo. The future car is much smarter, or connected if you like. These cars will collect, process, interpret, and send increasing amounts of data to and from a wide array of third parties.


Beyond the Usual Suspects


You might be thinking that only tech behemoths such as Google,
, and Tesla are driving this trend (pun intended). And you'd be wrong. Even traditional vehicle manufacturers such as Toyota and BMW get it. As such, they are making enormous bets. Take
for instance. The company is investing more than $1 billion over five years in artificial intelligence designed to make their cars smarter--and stave off disruption or irrelevance from their well-funded, tech-savvy competitors.

Of course, not all "smart" cars are being created equal. Nor will they do the same things. Different companies are taking different approaches, and most are keeping their cards extremely close to their vests. So what do we know?

For starters, Google for a while now has been working on a fully autonomous vehicle. (Ditto for Audi, but let's focus on Google for a moment.) Despite the car's currently stellar safety record, it faces significant regulatory obstacles and more than a few tech-related ones. Even if technology advances, tech-challenged lawmakers still need to get on board. Brass tacks: It's unlikely that we'll see fully autonomous cars on the road in the next few years. Ford CEO Mark Fields believes that this will happen by 2020.

Arguably more plausible, at least in the short term, is a semi-autonomous vehicle, one that automates the most routine, safest aspects of driving. Think of checking your e-mail while on your morning commute on a major highway. Volvo, BMW, Tesla, and Cadillac are each working on automating individual features, if not the entire driving experience. Mercedes is working hard on this as well. (For more on this, see a recent piece in The Atlantic.)


Why Now? A Glimpse into the Future


This begs an obvious question: Why are we seeing so much progress now? The short answer includes:
Smart, driverless vehicles are a direct result of collaboration between the automotive sector and the digital economy. We're seeing an increasing number of
. Developers are challenging the very notion of what a car can do. In a way that is similar to how product designers are evolving the traditional wristwatch into a connected, Internet-based device, so are automotive designers now being asked to address capabilities that are far beyond the traditional scope of automakers.

In the words of Olivier Sappin, Vice President, Transportation & Mobility Industry at Dassault Systèmes:

The successful integration of these new connected technologies in automobiles is going to require advanced collaboration platforms that allow these new disciplines to be part of the early design process. Traditional auto manufacturers need to adapt and evolve and advanced modeling technologies are enabling designers to better ideate, simulate and validate these new smart designs all through a single collaborative platform hosted in the Cloud. Look at some of the customers we are working with such as Tesla and AKKA. Tesla is building very powerful and simple chasses through this approach and completely setting the bar for a new breed of vehicle. And totally new companies like AKKA have emerged, developing the self-driving connected concept car known as the Link&Go, considered one of the best showcases of smart driverless technology.

To say that the future for (more) connected and energy-efficient cars is bright, however, is a far cry from saying that it is imminent. Indeed, automakers will need to overcome significant challenges to make the dream of a truly smart car a reality.

Sappin notes, "The cost needs to come down for smart cars to reach critical mass."


Lessons


It seems as if we've seen more innovation with automobiles in the last five to ten years than we have in the past century. Expect that to continue. New technologies, entrants, and data make for an exciting if uncertain future for vehicles of all sorts.