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The Race to Define the Most Important Technology in Cars

I’ve been driving my new Volvo XC90 for two months now. It’s an impressive car; Volvo has done a great job cramming this revision of their flagship SUV with great design and technology. And though I’m secretly hoping that this will be the last gasoline powered, manually-driven car I’ll need to ever buy, realistically I’m likely 3–4 cars away from that utopic future.

Automobiles are one of the “next big things” right now, and it’s fascinating that multiple industries are approaching the evolution of cars from wholly different angles. The traditional car manufacturer is prodding along with incremental improvements to technology and dipping their toes into non-gasoline engines1. Tesla and a few Chinese companies are leaning on electric cars and building out the prerequisite charging infrastructure. Google and Apple and a handful of startups are pursuing autonomous driving, but mostly on top of existing vehicles. Uber and other on-demand taxi companies want to leverage their courier logistics to refine transportation itself.

Electric vehicles are probably the least interesting technological advancement, particularly when there are already EVs on the road. For some reason car manufacturers like to pair their electric drivetrains with quirky vehicle designs2; hopefully, Tesla can demonstrate how a regular-looking car can also run on batteries. Beyond taking longer to refuel, however, there’s no fundamental shift in behavior or consequence with electric cars unless they completely take over their fossil-fueled brethren.

It’s easy enough to get excited by seeing software-centric companies enter the car business. The main interfaces to the car are the driving and infotainment/operation interfaces; car makers have spent a century perfecting the former, but a decade of smartphone iteration has raised customer expectations for the latter. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are starting to roll out, but the integrations are inconsistent and remain detached from the rest of the vehicle.

That said, I’m not convinced that UIs for cars — the non-driving parts of it, anyway — are as big of a differentiator as people suggest3. As long as the main operational functions of the car are accessible, the main utility of the infotainment system, in a world of fast-iterating smartphones, is really to integrate with a few select pieces of car hardware. Namely, the speakers, and maybe taking over the navigation.

Automated driving is a safer bet in terms of a true technological shift. Already, there have been predictions about how trucks that can drive themselves will put millions of professional truckers out of jobs. At the same time, at this point of self-driving technology, there’s plenty of skepticism among car owners on both its reliability and desirability. That is, even if the software is refined to the point of complete safety, there’s at least a generation of drivers who are used to driving, who do select their cars based on a combination of affordability, prestige, utility, and actual driving mechanics. Autonomy will likely have to be a commodity feature on all cars before it can make any real difference.

As to new breakthroughs based on proliferation of car-based transportation data, i.e., Uber’s claim to the future, they seem completely far fetched. So far the company has proven that it’s a better taxi service than the traditional taxis themselves, but there’s a natural limit to the logistics made possible via the mobilization of passenger cars. Even if better taxi-ing does drive down the number of cars on the road, the overall trend of fewer cars and lighter traffic relies much more heavily on city planning and public transportation infrastructure.

One of the reasons why this competition in the car industry is so fun to watch is that improvements are finally coming at it from multiple angles, and much of it is driven by improvements to computing hardware and software. Even if it’ll take a few decades to shake out, I’m excited to see more changes faster as I sit in each subsequent new car.

  1. With Toyota being the only company going completely sideways.

  2. I suspect it’s an attempt to prevent their EVs from cannibalizing their existing gas-based fleet.

  3. And one of the primary reasons why folks keep getting excited over the prospect of an Apple-built car.

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