The Future of the Automobile Is Living Inside the Palm of Your Hand

February 3, 2018

My senior year of high school I very specifically remember writing an essay about Nvidia’s Tegra 2 mobile processor. It was the first of it’s kind for mobile devices – a dual core ARM CPU paired with a graphics processor utilizing Nvidia’s bread and butter graphics technology. It was blazing fast and promised competition to Qualcomm’s dominant Snapdragon platform. It would be a game changer. However, it failed miserably within mobile devices mainly due to its lackluster memory controller. Essentially, it could find a book in a crowded library faster than anyone else – it just couldn’t read it fast enough. What it did do, though, was create a platform for the connected car at a time when no one else in the market was interested.

You see, Nvidia’s chip offered just enough graphical performance to edge it out over competing platforms and there was a very revolutionary customer on the market for such a device – Tesla.

Tesla’s 2011 Model S dashboard. Note the digital instrument cluster. 2018 models still haven’t caught up to this.

Tesla needed something that would power its mammoth touchscreen infotainment display in addition to displaying digital gauges in the place of analog displays. They were lightyears ahead of competition and created a truly revolutionary cockpit for drivers. Not only this but they were able to look ahead and plan for their self-driving future by investing in the best hardware to put digital eyes behind – graphics processors.

Fast forward to today – some car makers still can’t come up with a compelling user experience in the car. With mobile phones rampant why can’t they get something done?

The answer lies in the way automakers aligned their product teams. Instead of investing in dedicated internal teams they outsourced the work to companies such as Visteon and BorgWarner’s climate and electronics teams. This is cost effective and can give you a product in a short time, but it doesn’t give you something you can continue to build upon.

This is evident in many manufactures implementations of ‘smart’ driving features such as assisted lane control, pedestrian braking, and auto pilot features. These features rely heavily on the brains that are behind the dash that power your climate control and infotainment display. When you can’t separate the two – you’ve limited yourself to building off a platform that is already behind the curve.

A 2018 Hyundai’s dashboard. This looks like a Tom Tom from 2008.

Examples of companies stuck in this situation are Hyundai, Mazda, Honda/Acura, and Toyota/Lexus. Step into the cockpit of the majority of their 2018 models and it looks like you’re looking at an Android tablet straight out of 2010. However – they do still offer the technology features of other brands that include auto pilot, braking, and parking. They can’t just upgrade one aspect without redoing the other components try as they might.

Enter Apple & Google for their piece of the pie.

A great stop gap has been the introduction of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. These are completely powered by your cell phone with your in-car display, essentially, mirroring your phones display. In many cars, this gives you a user experience you’re used to with Spotify, Waze, Google Maps and more activated by your voice or swipe of a finger completely overriding the car’s stock system.

Check out my custom install of my Android Auto head unit in my VW GTI.

Now you may ask why these features aren’t standard. It lies with the data you don’t see. When you use any of these systems you’re giving Google and Apple data that makes their mapping software better and leaving the already data deprived auto system in the dust. Automakers can’t be better when they don’t have that to build off.

Some, in my opinion, smart automakers are partnering with the technology powerhouses for replacing the entire car’s electronic systems. Instead of Honda releasing an 8-year-old version of Android for their cars they can now receive the support of a giant with the latest software. Their in-house integration teams simply must ensure they create interfaces for the software to talk to. Something far easier than building an entire technology stack.

Audi’s concept in partnership with Google and fully integrating Android.

Now hold up, didn’t I say outsourcing was bad in this situation? Well, those extra technology features are now being integrated. Ever heard of Waymo? How about Apple’s secretive car concept? They’re the giant’s take on integrating the technology. Auto makers need to make the car move and the technology will be provided. As in the companies at the forefront of ingesting visual data can lead the charge in driving your car vs a small team with limited data.

Look at what Audi, VW, and Volvo provide to users and you will very quickly find they’re leading the charge with Google and Nvidia powering them. Give it a few more years and Apple will be there with them.

The Big Three – Showing that the they can compete.

Ford, GM, and Chrysler have their own in-house integrations and they’re every bit as good as products from other companies. In fact, because they’re able to sell more cars you’re going to find a more featured user experience than other brand’s lower priced models. Nvidia has gone as far as expanding their presence in the Ann Arbor area to capture their business and as evidenced by the cabins and sales numbers – it’s paying off.

Coming full circle.

Mobile hardware has gotten to the point we’re putting near super computing power of the last decade behind the dash of your car. Nvidia, Qualcomm, Intel and AMD are capitalizing on this and investing in dedicated auto segments due to the demand. Automakers are realizing that consumers value the technology inside their cars just as much as an all-wheel drive system that saves them gallons of gas on their commutes.

We won’t have self-driving cars in the entry level market for at least a decade, however, better in cabin experiences are just beyond the horizon all thanks to the technology living inside your phone.

Additional reading below.