Bringing the Technological Hammer Down on Cars

It seems inevitable that cars will be the next victim in the technologicalization of everything™. Tesla has successfully shown incumbant car manufacturers one way to look beyond fossil fuels—though they still have a ways to go to produce profitable cars for the mass market—while others like Apple and Google and Uber are making the automated automobile a likely future. The interesting dynamic revolves around whether traditionally technology-focused companies can simply barge their way into the car industry, whose companies and teams have established themselves over the course of 80+ years in the business.

From drivers’ and passengers’ standpoints, the rapid improvements in user experience seen in customer desktop and mobile software would be welcome in automotive operating systems. There are the beginnings of integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but the deeper levels of GPS and software integrations, with the eventual end-goal of computer-controlled vehicles, are what folks are excited about.

On the other side is the harder task of actually building vehicles, with many more levels of complexity and reliability concerns than the vast majority of software and hardware development. There are a few people who think that Apple has the hardware and logistical expertise to do well in the car market, but expectations about consumer electronics pale to that of a multi-ton, 70 mph-capable hunk of metal and fuel. For good reasons, people are highly skeptical of the reliability of commercial software.

So if cars and technology are destined to play together, the question is whether the tech companies or the car companies get there first. Instilling software-engineering-based disciplines inside of established firms is notoriously difficult, but establishing the pipelines to construct cars is no easy feat either.

As an analog, consider the (ongoing) collison between the telecom industry and technology. We start with partnerships—which has already happened with car manufacturers and software makers—but eventually companies will want to grow their own “stack” to control the experience and capture the value. Some will figure out which parts of the product matters, while others never fully integrate and struggle with getting anyone’s attention.

I’m biased, but I would not bet against technology against incumbent industries. As awesome as car companies have been in innovating on management and production practices, they will have to stretch even further to stop Google, Apple et al from owning the future of cars.

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