Monday, November 9, 2009

Technologies Must Connect Quickly With Public to Thrive

By Karl Vilacoba

Connected vehicle technologies have the potential to transform the driving experience in the century ahead. They may also have the potential to fizzle out before they really get started.

Inventions like these live or die by the enthusiasm of their earliest adopters. Their success depends on the quick spread of related technologies, and promoting early buy-in is tough work. Think of the first radio stations, broadcasting across miles of landscapes to populations that didn’t own radios. Likewise, a connected car can’t “talk” to a mute car. Generating an initial flow of information – enough to hook the first wave of users and influence them to spread the word to friends and family – will be crucial.

This is a dilemma explored in a 2008 study by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), which looked at some of the upsides, costs and obstacles to building a connected auto fleet and road system in the U.S. The report compared the situation to the advent of cell phones a decade ago, but noted an important difference – cell phones could at least call hard lines. Without other cars or infrastructure to interact with, connected vehicle technologies are useless.

Sources I spoke to for my article, “Car-Respondence,” stressed the importance of retrofitting older cars, at least to a point that they can transmit a basic level of information. Again, that will be difficult – people won’t shell out money for the equipment unless they’re convinced it’s worth it.

Perhaps the best way to accomplish a mass retrofit is to package the technology with gadgets that do other things – as a bonus feature of a satellite radio or an app in a BlackBerry, for instance. Once people get the taste for it, and the quantity of information transmitted begins to make a difference, they’ll be more likely to buy cars outfitted with the most cutting-edge capabilities of the day.

Some predict connectivity and hybridization/electrification are the two most profound changes the auto industry will see in the years ahead. This could be a big opportunity for Detroit -- oft-criticized as lagging a step behind the world’s automakers -- to take the lead and get back its Motor City mojo.

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