Category Archives: In Technology

De-Clawed Digital Disruptors: Why Samsung’s Acquisition of Harman is a Relief to Carmakers

This article comes on the heels of Samsung’s disclosure of its acquisition of Harman International Industries, referenced here.

The automotive OEMs’ business model, at its core, revolves around simply selling physical cars to people every 7-10 years, and hasn’t changed (or needed to change) since the car was originally invented. Enter the smartphone in the late 2000s, and within a few years the most important features on every car shopper’s must-have list involved some type of smartphone connectivity, which was about the time when carmakers started getting nervous. If what people care most about in a car (besides the basic standard that it moves when told to) is no longer what the carmaker controls or owns the development of, then theoretically it should be fairly simple for an Apple or Google to produce their own smartphone-centered cars, or at least reduce Ford and GM to simple low-margin hardware suppliers.

So why hasn’t the sky fallen on the OEMs yet?  If the latest move by Samsung, another one of the big smartphone players, offers any indication, there’s hope for them yet. Even within the last year, there were rumors swirling of Apple developing a secretive Titan connected car project that was to spell doom for the mainstays, while Google’s autonomous teletubby cars garnered tons of media buzz as they spun around the streets of Palo Alto. Today, however, Google has decided to pursue a more modest partnership strategy with its autonomous driving software, project Titan has been shuttered indefinitely, and now Samsung is entering the fray with a more-muted strategy in line with that of its digital brothers.

If you’re a Mary Barra or a Carlos Ghosn, this is at least a temporary sigh of relief. It’s another example of a so-called ‘digital disruptor’ finding it harder than anticipated to adapt its software/service business model to a hardware-heavy industry, opting instead for a less-risky, less-predatory entrance. It also confirms at least in the short-run that the creation of the automobile itself remains securely in automakers’ hands, while the connectivity and software aspects of the car will remain a hodgepodge effort of Detroit-Silicon Valley partnerships, internal development, and a plethora of tier 1 suppliers and startups.

At this point in the connected car race, both carmakers and external players find themselves sitting across from the same hairy dilemma: how do we leverage these new connectivity capabilities between the car and its surrounding devices to bring value to drivers? So far, they’ve come up with mainly three unsatisfying answers: car-sharing services, telematics/informatics services, and V2X (vehicle-to-something) communication. As all parties involved have found, not even a combination of these business models yields the fruit they had expected yet.

Perhaps the real meaty value of the connected car lies in its unique role as the central device that physically connects us to our world, much in the same way that our smartphones are the focal points of our digital lives.

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Tesla and SolarCity Set Course for Common Energy Platform

tesla-motors-inc-batteries-to-be-first-available-for-solarcity-corp-custome
Photo from csddaily.wordpress.com

 

The Tesla and SolarCity merger is not just a smart business bundle of achieving one-time corporate synergies. It’s arguably the beginning of a future where regardless of how the energy is gathered or utilized, it can be shared.

 

This may seem obvious or like not a big deal, but when we start talking about the future of modular transportation where a group of “modules” (cars) together can power a train more efficiently and with less traffic, these cars need to be able to pool their energy repositories together to create one large pool for the train of cars to pull from.

Short side note: this is where fossil fuel vehicles hit a bigger roadblock than a herd of angry Greenpeace activists. Fossil fuels produce energy, but they have to be turned into electricity via combustion prior to being able to be shared. I can’t pour gas into my iPhone and expect it to work, ever again.

We take for granted all the things that we simply plug into the wall. This is how the future of transportation needs to work from the standpoint of universality of the energy being used, but we need to go a step further. Being able to charge your iPhone and iPad from your computer’s energy source is fantastically useful, but it doesn’t make the USE of that energy any more efficient – if anything it makes it less because my iPhone dies every fourth email whereas my computer can handle a few hundred before dying.

With transportation, though, there are real benefits from being able to allocate energy correctly, and only if the energy can be easily allocated in different ways can these tangible benefits materialize.

For example, say there are two 18-wheel trucks, one directly behind the other, driving on an interstate for several hundred miles. Both are carrying their own payloads, and both are using their own engine power to move their respective payloads across the country. However, the guy driving behind the first truck is expending much less energy than his friend in front because he doesn’t have to deal with as much headwind hitting the front of his truck. This is a fairly common occurrence among truckers, and it’s called drafting. The problem with drafting, is that someone is always having to take the brunt of the wind, while the others simply coast behind.

But what if there were a way in a line of interstate trucks for the trailing trucks to push energy from their engines forward to the trucks bearing the brunt of the headwind? Then you’d have the energy where it’s needed most and where the other trucks can simply coast along. It’s a similar thought process as a train on train tracks. Each car does not individually have its own power supply, but rather is attached to the power in the front.

Granted, trucks on a highway are not going to connect directly to reach other necessarily, but the value of having the front truck bear the brunt of the headwinds while everyone that’s trailing pushes some of their own energy forward makes everyone more efficient and channels energy directly to where it’s needed.
That same hallmark of directing energy where it’s most needed is apparent in the Tesla/SolarCity deal. The solar system stores the energy in the battery packs, which then can be used where it’s most needed. Whether that’s charging the person’s car to go somewhere or heating their home or profiting from selling the energy in excess back to the grid, the person’s energy ecosystem is allocating energy where it’s most needed and where it’s most efficient.

In developing a common energy platform where energy can be targeted to where it’s most needed and most efficient, the Tesla/SolarCity deal is way more than just good old fashioned corporate synergies.

Car Batteries Are Still Toddlers, Don’t Stunt Their Growth

I recently finished The Powerhouse by Steve Levine, which tells the tale of the lithium ion battery and its evolving application to electric cars. What I was somewhat shocked to learn was that although lithium ion technology has existed for decades, the lithium ion batteries that are going into the Teslas and Volts was developed in my lifetime, and for the newer generation models, within the last five years. (I had a similar reaction when I learned that the Internet was developed just a couple years before I was born, #millennial.) 

What also occurred to me is that we’re a long ways off from creating the ultimate battery. In much the same way engines have continually improved over the last 100 years, so too will a better battery come to fruition every couple years. 

Having more than a passing interest in batteries yet no technical background to speak of, it seems to me that there are a couple standout issues with the current lithium ion batteries that will keep scientists scratching their heads to fix:  recharge time, voltage fade, and capacity. 

None of these are easy things to fix (apparently), and it seems that the current trajectory is incremental improvements on the existing lithium ion technology – a few more cycles before voltage starts to fade, a little more capacity, a little faster recharge time. Sound familiar? It’s the same place combustion engines are at – a little more of this, a little better that. But engines have had the luxury to be refined and perfected over more than ten decades. Lithium ion and car batteries in general are still in their first decade. 

If we’re hitting this incremental-only ceiling this early in the game, it begs the question if we’re looking in the right places for the next breakthrough in battery technology. And if I were the person in charge of setting the course towards the next battery innovation, I’d look for types of batteries that solve the issues that lithium ion seems to be stuck with. 

My first stop would be to flow cell batteries – essentially batteries that are recharged by draining the spent liquid and refilling it with new liquid. To the consumer, essentially the same time and process of refilling a combustion engine. Oh and they don’t degrade over time. There are several types of flow cell batteries, but the only one that gets talked about is the hydrogen fuel cell, which has its own issues. 

What looks most promising from my non-technical end of the table is the vanadium redox flow cell battery. Like lithium ion, the modern form of the battery was discovered decades ago, but has not really been improved upon since. The issue with these batteries currently is that you’d need a whole bunch of electrolyte to produce enough energy to power the car. So much so that it would be impractical to fit into a car. But there is progress on this end, though slow due to so little interest. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has created the closest thing to a plausible flow cell battery, but at the moment they don’t talk about it having automotive applications. 

In addition, organic flow cell batteries are emerging as potentially the safest and most sustainable type of flow cell battery. This stuff has only been thought up in the last seven years. The advantage over inorganic redox batteries is a huge reduction in cost and more environmentally-friendly materials. Again the PNNL is about the only ones working on this, though the California-based ARPA-E has also looked into it, again from stationary energy storage perspectives. 

While I’m not an expert in battery chemistry, it seems that people are so enamored with lithium ion that we haven’t given credence to other battery technologies that may be able to solve a lot of the pain points that exist with lithium ion. Flow cell and organic flow cells are just a couple ideas, and may absolutely not be feasible, but I think it’d behoove the entire energy and electric vehicle industries if we didn’t tell the current batteries they’re great just the way they are – talk about a recipe for parental disaster. 

Upping The Ante: Why Toyota’s Push for ‘Intelligent’ Over ‘Autonomous’ Cars Just Might Work

Last week, the New York Times’ John Markoff explored the new investment by Toyota in intelligent car research through partnerships with Stanford and MIT lab researchers. See the full story here.

My first blog post ever was written about how Toyota firmly believed in the driver having the final say in a car’s decisionmaking, a stark divergence from the autonomous crowd that started with Google and now Apple and has bandwaggoned even the most performance-leaning carmakers.

Toyota is thinking much differently, and as the world’s largest automaker, people should be taking notice when the frontrunner goes against the grain of the rest of the industry on such a pivotal area of the business. Toyota has a history of making bold decisions that end up confounding industry experts and other companies. The most prevalent being the Toyota Prius legacy that launched the hybrid drivetrain revolution by bringing eco-friendly cars within reach of the middle class. More recently, Toyota has rebuffed Apple and Google’s intrusion into the car by heavily investing in their own user interface and infotainment centers rather than concede defeat. And the next frontier they will do battle is in the autonomous car age.

How Design Thinking Can Help Cars Become More Than Smartphones On Wheels

September’s Harvard Business Review focuses on the concept of design thinking and its application to how businesses function and strategize across a number of industries. This is my take on how carmakers can integrate this design mindset to create a product that goes beyond any other device. (See original article here)

My mom’s old car that was handed down to my sister is a 2002 Acura MDX, a staple mom-car that sold as many units as it could make through the early 2000s. It has a decent, somewhat fidgety navigation unit that is also a touchscreen climate control built into a nicely wood-trimmed center stack, and has Bose surround sound and heated folding mirrors.

As I approach car buying thirteen years later, I myself would love a car with those same features, and if properly disguised, that 2002 Acura MDX could look a heck of a lot like the new models you can buy today. There’s more functionality in today’s infotainment systems, of course, but the systems aren’t any better integrated into the total car experience than they were in 2002. If I were to take a 2015 infotainment console from a new MDX and put it in my mom’s 2002 one, people who didn’t know cars super well would have a hard time differentiating the new car from the old. Why? Because the tech that they’ve put in cars from before 2002 and into 2015 has been designed as a slap-on – an extra option that doesn’t really belong in the driving experience, but sits on top of it all like a superficial nice-to-have. It has no real “roots” in the car’s physical design and experience – the screens still look like they’ve been pasted to the dashboards as an after-thought, the user interface is as much a nightmare as it was in 2002, and once you locate the gadget that somehow controls it all, everyone’s reaction seems to be along the lines of “what the hell am I supposed to do with this?” or “God this is taking forever,” and then they pull out their smartphone.

So why are the technologies from my mom’s ’02 MDX no better integrated than today’s ample technologies? Because automakers are so obsessed with keeping pace with the smartphone by cramming more features into the screens that they don’t see past the features themselves to creating a holistic car driving experience. Hence, the “smartphone on wheels” was born.

I think we can point at a number of factors behind the “smartphone on wheels” mania that has occurred, but it boils down to the automakers being absolutely petrified of Apple and Google, and for good reason. Customers today care about the tech (particularly smartphone) elements in the car equally if not more so than the technical, physical elements. But that’s only the beginning of the story – if automakers better integrated the digital experience to enhance and cater to a deeper physical experience, I’m willing to bet more people wouldn’t just care about being able to use apps from their smartphone.

The real magic that has made smartphones increasingly more valuable as time goes on are the apps that they run and the products they connect to that are powered by non-Apple/Google companies. This is why Apple/Google drool at the car – because there are huge possibilities for what the phone can do in a car, not unlike what a phone can do with smart appliances like thermostats.

So really what keeps OEMs up at night is the possibility of becoming just another app, just another appliance like a smart thermostat whose real value proposition is that it is controlled through the user’s coveted smartphone. If this were to be the case and all everyone cared about was the fact that the car connected with their iPhone, there would be fewer automakers producing cars for much less profit.

So carmakers need to decide whether they want to be the app company or they want to try their hand at beating Apple/Google. While Apple/Google are light years ahead of automakers when it comes to digital design and experience, carmakers excel at physical experiences. And the beauty of knowing how to create an awesome physical experience full of emotion is that integrating the digital experience can deepen and bring to life the physical experience of the car.

I tend to think carmakers can win the battle in creating a holistic experience designed to integrate both digital and technical features. But in order to do so, they have to stop playing by Apple/Google’s rules of cramming endless features into screens, stop trying to make a better smartphone on wheels where virtual and physical experiences are silo’d, and start focusing on how the design of the digital and physical user experiences together could make a car way cooler than anything Google’s little self-driving teletubbies could pull off.

The first step to this strategy is realizing that although the definition of what a car means to certain people has changed since the ’60s, cars still can and do evoke a range of vibrant emotions for the people inside, and, if done correctly, the digital component can enhance the physical and emotional feel and relationship we have with cars tenfold further than simply integrating smart phone capability. The car must be digitally and physically what people need it to be when they need it, meaning it should be able to transform seamlessly from soccer mom carpool car to personal assistance commuting pod to track-ready performance car in a matter of seconds.

One teaser example: you bought a normal car and got one with special features catered to racing and performance. You have a free bit of highway in front of you on a casual Saturday and the light is about ten seconds from turning green. You bring up the performance screen, which tells you that a combination of torque vectoring, a higher RPM rev rate, and a lower center of gravity will produce the optimal balance for you to leave everyone else at the line. You adjust different aspects of the car on-screen based on its recommendations and hit submit, and in a matter of seconds you feel the car growl a bit louder and sink a bit lower to the street as it sets its new stance (whew – I just got goosebumps thinking about it). You may very well say that the days of performance cars are over, but sales figures say differently. Just ask the people in charge of the Dodge Hellcat line or the Mercedes AMG line what their bonuses look like this year compared to their peers.

Second more mundane example: you’re late for a meeting, so the self-drive mode isn’t going to fly today because it’s too cautious and slow for right now. You’re trying to edit the final moments of a presentation while also driving like a lunatic. The car knows your route to work, and is suggesting lane changes to weave through traffic through your heads-up display, while asking if it’s ok to alert your teammates that your ETA is three minutes after the meeting starts so they might want to consider kicking it off without you. The car also notices that your eyes are on the road only about 6 of every ten seconds, so it becomes extra vigilant about detecting possible collisions, and when necessary, making a lane change or overriding your lead foot. You speed to the front of your office and find an open parking place and run inside without feeding the meter. You check your phone after the meeting and your car says that it detected you parked in a reserved space, so it moved around the corner and fed the meter. The only thing missing to this exchange was “I hope your meeting went well!”

Between these two scenarios, the first one makes you feel like a total bad ass, and now you and the car share this special “don’t tell your spouse” moment. In the second, the car is like any number of under-appreciated assistants on any number of TV shows and movies – you feel like you owe them something for all the sacrifices and help they’ve selflessly given you. Has your phone ever made your blood rush and feel like a bad ass or feel like you owed it something on an almost-human level?

Going back to my statement about seamlessly transforming to what a driver needs a car to be in “a matter of seconds” – that “matter of seconds” is in itself a cornerstone of what separates a car from a smartphone on wheels, and it only happens if the digital and technical aspects of the car are in complete harmony. Neither of the two situations elicit the same emotional feel without a thorough design strategy. In the first example, I never would’ve gotten goosebumps if I wouldn’t have felt the car sink into its haunches and snort as a result of my finger touching buttons on the screen. It makes you feel a bit on edge thinking about what you just unleashed under the hood. In the second example though, I want the car to know what’s happening without having to click an “I’m late please help” button. You never would’ve felt true empathy for the car had it not instantly known that you were late, known who your teammates were, known which route you always take, and instead of telling you to slow down like a pre-programmed system would, it gave you help like any co-pilot would and went one step further, a step that you wouldn’t have noticed until you came out and your car had been booted.

Does your smartphone need to be involved for these things to work? Probably for some things. But that’s not the point. The point is that the car owns the experience, and the phone is merely an aid, which is a different direction from where many automakers feel they’re headed – a car that’s just a smartphone with wheels.

A phone can tell you you’re going to be late, but it can’t physically help you be less late. A phone can recommend how to make your car perform better, but itself cannot move you from 0 to 60 faster. And a phone can tell you you’re parked illegally and then show you via a live camera feed the cop writing you a ticket, but it can’t do anything about avoiding the ticket. Car companies are great at creating beautiful physical experiences – the noises, the feel, the rhythm, even some of the self-driving tech is already applause-worthy. But in an age of technology inundation, carmakers need to realize and embrace the notion that tech isn’t superfluous or an add-on or bad.  With a cohesive design strategy based on integrating the virtual with the physical, a driver can forge a deeper emotional connection with the car – one based on a true relationship. 

From ‘Internet of Things’ to ‘Food Chain of Things’, Carmakers Can Beat Apple and Google at Their Own Game

Over the past week or two, everyone from GM to Volvo has announced the imminent introduction of Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto in most new models, hailing them as the next great steps in automotive tech innovation. This reliance on such powerful, non-automotive companies for such a consumer-visible feature and differentiating factor is a fairly new concept to OEMs, who in the past have relied on ventures with automotive suppliers like Delphi and QNX to build special tech platforms for each distinct brand. 

That seems to be changing now that CarPlay and Android Auto will look and act virtually identically in every car, regardless of if it’s a Ferrari or a Honda. While this is great if you’re a driver (since you won’t have to learn a new platform every time you get into a different brand of car), it’s a dangerous precedent for automakers to set. Consumers today are buying cars more due to the unique tech features and less due to the car’s performance metrics. Rupert Stadler, CEO of Audi, recently stated that technology features will be more important to average consumers than horsepower by 2020. 

So what happens when the features that consumers most care about when buying a car are features that the car company themselves did not create or have any control over? Well, certainly nothing good for the margins of the OEMs as the supplier power of Google and Apple continues to grow. We’re at an intersection between what the car has been for a hundred years, and what it’s going to be in the next twenty years. For automakers to be successful against Apple and Google, they’re going to have to beat them at their own game. 

What is Google and Apple’s game? To create a platform by which every device in your life seamlessly interacts, thereby achieving a sort of tech ecosystem. So how do you beat them at this game if you’re a carmaker? By making the car, as Stadler also noted, the most powerful and important device in the consumer’s tech ecosystem. To me, the new age of the Internet of Things should be more aptly named the Food Chain of Things. Apple and Google have created a new battlefield for companies from a variety of industries to try to position their products higher up the Food Chain of Things than the next guy’s product, thereby making it less likely that the consumer views your product as superfluous and unnecessary compared to other devices. 

There are obvious, true advantages to automobiles over smartphones and iPads, mainly in their ability to physically transport people rather than just show Instagram pictures of where they could be. In this new era of Food Chain of Things, cars need to be more affordable like other devices we buy, and they need to seamlessly incorporate the virtual world while at the same time seamlessly incorporating the physical one. 

What might this look like in reality? New payment options and ownership flexibility, better traffic management and safety, and better incorporation of smartphone features are just the beginning. To solidify the car’s sustainable place in the digital age, carmakers are going to have to do battle with pretty much every consumer-facing industry that wants a bite of the Food Chain of Things, and nowhere is this more apparent than with Google and Apple. It’s an uphill battle, but luckily it’s a brave new world for everyone, not just carmakers.

Future Cars Might Be More Automated Than Autonomous

Stemming off of the last post, despite the relentless media coverage, the real market for fully autonomous vehicle technology is forecast to be quite low, while the market for automated features (lane departure warnings, smart cruise control, and collision avoidance technologies) is substantially larger.

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While there are plenty of great things that will come about as a result of more robotic cars, there may be a limit to which we should allow robots to help us drive. Automated features allow the car to take control when drivers don’t want or need to, but leave the necessary decision making  up to humans. In other words, it may be possible to achieve the safety and traffic flow benefits of fully autonomous cars without relinquishing total driver control. The future car will act more as a co-captain – able to relieve you during intervals of your journey and making sure you have all the information necessary to make the most informed decisions when you are in control.

Fully autonomous cars may eventually gain traction, but there are a multitude of issues that will limit the technology’s widespread adoption, the most pressing of which are:

1. Even the cool ones don’t work in snow, ice, or fog.

As impressive as the progress in autonomous technology has been over the last decade, there are still and will continue to be major drawbacks, the biggest of which is probably dealing with weather. Given the reliance of autonomous cars on accurate GPS positioning and the variables associated with driving in snow or rain or fog, it’s extremely difficult to create a robotic car that’s capable of making correct decisions in such conditions. As a consumer, having an autonomous car that doesn’t work some days is not an enticing selling point.

2. You can’t just wipe out millions of jobs.

On a more political level, autonomous cars very much threaten millions of taxi drivers and delivery service employees like UPS and FedEx drivers. Companies like Uber are already dumping money into developing driver-less taxis, but governments (particularly the more leftward leaning ones) may stop these companies from operating within their countries if by doing so puts thousands of their citizens out of work.

3. Existing non-autonomous and partially-automated cars are already safe and getting safer…

Let’s talk about the touted benefits of cars that drive themselves, the foremost being that autonomous cars keep people safer than normal cars. The IIHS recently released a report detailing 9 existing car models that have never had a person die in them dating back to 2011, in addition to total highway driving deaths plummeting to their lowest ever levels in recent years. Also, the development of highly automated features like smart cruise control and traffic jam assist will allow drivers to let the car do most of the work anyway, so customers will feel less need to go fully autonomous.

… and buying an autonomous car doesn’t guarantee your safety.

Just because you are the one in the autonomous car doesn’t mean you can’t still be hit by another person driving a non-autonomous car. Just saying.

4. How do you properly insure a machine?

If an autonomous car hits something or someone, who’s at fault? The human driver? The car company who made the car?

6. In a lose-lose situation, should an algorithm decide who lives and who dies?

It’s a very real possibility that there will be instances in which a car has to decide whether to let the occupant or someone else live – do we want a formula to make these types of moral and ethical decisions for us?

5. No one can guarantee an un-hackable car.

The recent report detailing the DHTSA’s ability to hack a basic Chevy sedan and control the acceleration and internal controls does not bode well for car companies trying to get customers to put their hands in their car’s lives. When bank accounts get hacked by foreign terrorists, that’s one thing, but when cars get hacked, people’s lives are at stake.