October 5, 2013

Self-driving cars, next-gen GPS, and more: Euro car makers’ latest wares from FAS

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Weeks ago, more than a million visitors attended the International Motor Show in Frankfurt (FAS) to see the latest auto bling. More than 1,090 exhibitors vied for attention in a show that featured glitzy unveilings of the Porsche 918 Spyder, BMW i8 and Mercedes S500.

European auto makers are known for engineering prowess, which makes Frankfurt one of the most anticipated shows on the global auto calendar. They are also early adopters of technology innovation and, for technology enthusiasts, this show did not disappoint. German OEMs BMW, Audi and Mercedes announced advances in autonomous driving, navigation, infotainment and ancillary services. French Prime Minister François Hollande made a national commitment to auto resurgence through technology leadership.

The auto sector, which accounts for 20% of U.S. retail and manufacturing, is a large consumer of technology. Electronics already accounts for up to 50% of car component costs. Yet electronics alone understate the Connected Car opportunity. Americans spends an average of 52 minutes in a car each day and 40 minutes of that time alone. For the technology industry, this represents a large whitespace for infotainment and enabling services offering more utility and functionality than broadcast radio can offer.

FAS offered a glimpse into several new technologies that address this opportunity:

Autonomous driving & security
Mercedes unveiled the S500 Intelligent Drive vehicle (below), which retraced the inaugural drive by the world’s first automobile 125 years ago from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany. But this time the route was completed without a driver using only guidance from on-board sensors and Nokia’s HERE mapping services. Nissan committed to have driverless vehicles on the roads by 2020.

While regulation and consumer adoption will likely delay full adoption of autonomous driving for decades, these technologies are already available in advanced assistance and security (ADAS) features. Alfa Romeo demoed a car that stopped automatically to avoid sensor-detected obstacles. Mercedes S- and E-class models offer audible warnings when embedded cameras detect obstacles, active suspension that adjusts automatically for uneven road surfaces, and smart seatbelts that tighten during abrupt stops.

Navigation & intermodal travel
Navigation enabled by location aware (GPS) technology and embedded navigation systems have become a standard feature for new high-end cars. Nokia HERE demoed a navigation system offering 3D mapping, dynamic routing based on real time traffic conditions, and customized local point of interest information.

BMW’s iRemote app demo compares and suggests alternative transportation methods (i.e., public transportation) if they are more efficient than driving. As driving alternatives proliferate — including car ride and bike sharing services — multi-modal navigation services will become increasingly important.

Pioneer and Denzo demoed new heads-up display units taking navigation and other information from touchscreen consoles to windshields. Their intent is to improve safety by displaying information while keeping drivers focused on the road, but driver distraction is likely unless information is shown selectively and discretely.

Consumers have already benefited from Connected Car technology through enhancements of existing entertainment systems from Sirius XM and Pandora radio to on-board video screens for movies. Anticipating increasing consumer demand auto makers are upgrading their entertainment systems. Tesla demoed a 17 inch touchscreen in the dashboard of its Model S at CES in January. In Frankfurt, Volvo announced a large touchscreen for its next XC90 due in 2014. Mercedes offered a more futuristic view prototyping an in-vehicle Infotainment System using augmented reality.

Enhanced touchscreen hardware will enable more interactive, customized, context aware services. The platform war between iOS and Android that has spurred innovation and ecosystem app development on smartphones will migrate to autos enabling an increasing array of automated, targeted, local services mimicking available Internet services.

Access Technology

Remote vehicle access (already widely available) is becoming more refined once integrated into mobile applications. With BMW’s iRemote app, a businessman attending meetings in New York can unlock his i3 parked in San Francisco so his children can grab the soccer ball inside. German car sharing startup CarZapp demoed a mobile app and car kit allowing renters temporary access cars without a face-to-face key hand-off while sensors authenticate users and track the car to reduce risk of theft.

While Bluetooth currently enables remote access, Continental showed a solution allowing broader functionality using the more secure NFC protocol. With NFC enabled cellphones, users can open car doors, start the engine, pay tolls, and access local services. This solution allows fleet managers and families to virtualize the car key, delivering the key securely to drivers for temporary or permanent use. Japan’s early adoption of NFC technology (through Felica chips) was initiated by widespread use in public transportation systems. Similarly, applications such as those offered by Continental may facilitate broader adoption of NFC technology, which would in turn enable mobile payment applications for which it was initially intended.

Car design and manufacturing cycles range from 3-5 years and car ownership extends the period from initial design to end-of-life to over ten years. Auto makers thus need strategies to mitigate the mismatch between auto and technology life cycles. Add-ons such as Garmin’s navigation systems are now common for cars. We expect to see a proliferation of such add-ons in the future. MobilEye demoed one such dashboard add-on with a system that warns drivers of upcoming obstacles they may otherwise overlook.

Nissan demoed the most unusual auto accessory at Frankfurt – the Nismo concept watch, which offers everything from car telemetry and maintenance data to driver heart rate on your wrist. Certainly a niche product with features that are at best may be added to new smart watches, the Nismo demonstrates the creativity – and occasional absurdity – that occasionally will emerge as different technology trends converge.

Next up on the global auto calendar is the Los Angeles Auto show in mid-November. We look forward to seeing what the U.S. auto makers and their technology counterparts have to offer at the show.

Paul Asel is Managing Partner of Nokia Growth Partners where he covers in investments in the U.S. and Asia focusing on technology for the mobile and auto sectors. Nokia Growth Partners invests in companies that are changing the face of mobility, communications and the internet. NGP offers industry expertise, capital and an extensive network, enabling entrepreneurs to build disruptive, industry-changing companies and take them to the global market.

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