Wearable Tech World Feature Article
January 09, 2015

The Auto Industry Loves Smart Watches

Automakers and the industry's technology manufactures had a clear message at this year's Consumer Electronics Show: future cars will be controlled via smart watches. It's an interesting position given the relative newness of the wearables industry, but the auto industry doesn't want to be caught short like it was with the arrival of smartphones.

"The two inventions of the century, the car and the computer, are gradually coming closer together. We need to design future mobility to be even more intelligent and even more networked," said Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG.

Volkswagen made it clear it is supporting mobile devices, regardless of form factor. As a part of the company's press event on Monday, Jan. 5, company officials announced its App Connect system would support smartphones and smart watches using MirrorLink, Google Android Auto and Apple CarPlay before the end of the year. The App Connect system is part of the company's second generation modular infotainment platform, MIB II.

For anyone annoyed with manufacturers locking customers into a specific wireless carrier, such as GM, Volkswagen's move to support a BYOD-style model is welcome. But what exactly can you do with a smart device in combination with a car, other than take phone calls through the vehicle's speakers, and get remote start, vehicle status, and remote unlock?

Autonomous operation is the excitement and sizzle, as promised by Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and others. Today, some model vehicles can conduct parking assists, essentially parallel parking the car without the driver fumbling to back into a space or hitting the curb or other vehicles. Valero, an automotive electronics company, outlined a technology path at CES where vehicles will gain increasing functionality to operate on their own. The next generation will be to conduct a "trained park," where the car will drive itself into a regular parking space.

Third generation autonomous tech – a combination of software and more advanced sensors – will enable a driver to park the car remotely, using a smart device to control the car. This may be a case where you don't want to get yourself dirty or bang up against another car in a tight space or directing the car to park in a garage while you stand outside (thereby enabling pack rats to stuff more things into their garages, no doubt).

Control would be conducted through an app on a smartphone or watch, with manufacturers covered by supporting both Android Auto and CarPlay. Nobody mentioned Windows, leaving Microsoft locked out of this market and mindshare for the time being, but I suspect the company has some sort of deal in the works to get its "Mobile first/Cloud first" strategy into the car at some point.

Valeo outlined a future where the car key would be "virtual," stored in a smart device. Leasing companies and by-the-hour ride-share firms are hot for virtual keys, as it would provide them with built-in technology to loan vehicles to drivers. A simple software load would convert a car into a ride-share or lease vehicle, so drivers would simply have to have an app from the leasing company and a way to download a secure key for the duration of use.

Future generations of vehicles will become more autonomous, with the next step being a "traffic jam" mode able to drive the car in a slow-moving stop-and-go environment. Ultimately, as promised by Mercedes in its concept design rolled out at a CES keynote, vehicles will be able to drive themselves in highway environments by the end of the decade. In fact, Audi drove an A-7 on hands-free autopilot 500 miles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for CES 2015.

To borrow a phrase, automobile firms have the technology. The industry has a road map to move towards fully autonomous operations, and the step-wise approach from simple operations to highway speeds is one that regulators seem to be more comfortable around. Valero indicated the primary challenge moving forward would be working with regulators (Welcome to Politics - Layer 9!) to make sure everyone is comfortable with self-driving cars.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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