The Internet of Things, or IoT. It's a term that we hear often these days from automotive engineers and industry professionals. And while it sounds a bit mysterious and maybe even mildly intimidating, IoT isn't exactly rocket science. What it is, simply, is a network of physical devices (for example, smartphones, smart TVs, smart watches and, yes, the modern day automobile) with embedded sensors that can collect data, and Internet connectivity for receiving and transmitting data in various digital formats. So what exactly is IoT in the automotive context, and why are engineers saying that it will completely revolutionise the way cars are built, and the ways in which people interact with their cars? Let's find out.
SETTING THE CONTEXT
According to a recent report published by IBM, more than 200 mn cars already feature Internet connectivity in some way or the other (be it for navigation, infotainment, diagnostics and/or other factors), and that by the year 2020, cars will be the number one Web-connected application.
There will be two sides to the development spurred by IoT. At the car user's end, consumers will benefit from connected, always-online infotainment and navigation systems based on open standards that support a range of industry protocols (so that your Hyundai can 'speak' to your friend's Toyota, and share data seamlessly...), and will also be able to use cloud-based services provided by third parties, via seamless integration.
The impact of IoT will be even bigger at the automotive OEMs' end, where the Internet of Things will enable manufacturers to carry out extensive customer profiling, implement tightly-focused digital marketing campaigns, provide vehicle tracking and security services, monitor powertrain performance, remotely run diagnostics tools and provide software updates when required, and in the case of high-end luxury vehicles, even provide concierge services. IoT will also have an important role to play in fleet management operations for service providers like Uber and Ola, and when the time comes, also in the area of autonomous driving, which will rely heavily on online, real-time access to road and traffic data for navigation. And finally, even as many industry experts reckon that individual car ownership will decline over the next decade and more, and car sharing will become the norm, it's once again IoT that will be a key enabler in this regard.
TENTATIVE FIRST STEPS
In the context of the above, the Internet of Things will primarily serve three functional areas. Firstly, it will power a whole set of driver assistance systems, providing a better, safer user experience for the driver. Secondly, it will allow OEMs to remotely run vehicle diagnostics and repair/update programs. This will be a two-way street, where the car can also self-diagnose electro-mechanical issues, and send related information to the manufacturer, who can then initiate necessary action. Or, OEMs can initiate OTA updates on their own, as and when required.
Lastly, IoT will allow each individual vehicle to become a part of a larger transportation system, working in coordination with other cars (including autonomous cars) and infrastructure. This component will include crash notification services, where, in the event of an accident, a car will automatically be able to transmit its location coordinates and other relevant data to the OEM and/or designated search and rescue services, which will in turn be able to swing into action and take necessary action at the crash location.
For IoT to really make a big impact in the automotive space, OEMs will need to move beyond the auto vertical and work closely with companies that are leading the way in areas like cloud computing, big data analytics, machine learning and mobile communications. As cars move away from IC engines and on to hybrids and ultimately pure electric power, mechanical complexity and number of parts are expected to reduce, but there will be a corresponding increase in IT-related complexity, a fact that automotive OEMs already understand and most have started working towards amping up their expertise in these new areas.
As IoT becomes pervasive in the auto sector, data acquisition (pertaining to every aspect of car buying and usage behaviour) and management of this data will become a key factor for automotive OEMs, and will drive their business strategy, new model development priorities and vendor management programs. Companies like Google (which set up the 'Open Automotive Alliance' back in 2014) and Apple have also gotten in on this game early on, and already have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay respectively, two ecosystems that already form the basis, or the core, of infotainment and connectivity systems currently being offered on many new cars. Going forward, the role of these two ecosystems will only increase, while Microsoft is also expected to pitch in with its Windows OS for automotive-related use. Apple is getting ready to commercialise its 'iOS in the car,' while Google is developing new functionalities in Android, which will allow users to share apps on their phone with their car and control those with either voice commands or via the car's touchscreen panel. So, yes, infotainment is clearly one area where IoT will have a huge impact in the very near future, and one of the biggest mid- to long-term objectives for OEMs would be to start using standardised protocols for data acquisition, sharing and management, which would ultimately allow all cars to 'talk' to each other.
CHANGES, CHALLENGES AT OEMS' END
While IoT will, in many ways, enhance the user experience for individuals, it will also bring about many changes for OEMs, which will subsequently require preparation and adaptation. One key area where IoT will take over is aftersales. With the ability to acquire user data, OEMs will be able to more accurately predict servicing and spare parts requirements, and will be able to use connected diagnostics solutions to provide OTA software updates, in many cases avoiding situations which may have otherwise required an expensive vehicle recall. Data collected and analysed by OEMs and their vendors, based on car usage patterns and the number/type of problems encountered by the user, will also help them reverse-engineer their products to avoid re-occurrence of identified issues.
With increased V2V and V2X connectivity, a big issue for OEMs will be handling data safety and security concerns. Last month, Mercedes-Benz announced that its cars will now be able to connect to digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home and will let the driver use voice commands to activate many of the cars' functions, including remote starting, locking, navigation inputs and others. While that may certainly be useful for some, all that personal data being synced between the car and phone – and hence potentially available to hackers – could pose a serious security concern. Once the car becomes yet another connected 'device,' it becomes as vulnerable as a PC, laptop or smartphone, possibly attracting hackers to exploit security loopholes, with potentially disastrous consequences.
One suggested workaround for security-related concerns with cloud connectivity, in the automotive context, is ensuring that service vendors have complete ownership of the end-to-end service software stack, including the software embedded in the car, and even deployment and OTA updates must be controlled by the service vendor. This is currently not the norm in the automotive industry, where car OEMs have full control over the software used in their cars. However, with the use of open source software and the use of entire ecosystems like 'iOS in the car' and Android Auto, auto OEMs and IT companies will need to figure out their respective roles and responsibilities in the near future, in a way that provides maximum security to the end user.
Moving on from the security issue, the next big thing that will see a big impact is car insurance. Yes, insurance costs can be a significant part of owning and operating a vehicle – especially true in the case of higher-end cars – and IoT will also have a role to play in this context. Going forward, legislation and/or commercial arrangements may lead to OEMs sharing the data, which they've collected from car users, with insurance companies, thereby providing the latter with information on car usage patterns, speeds at which cars are driven by their owners, GPS location data (which could, for example, pinpoint use of a car on a closed-circuit racetrack) and other information, all of which insurance companies might use to either calculate customised premium and/or take pay-out decisions on claims made by the insured. As the use of IoT progresses in the automotive industry, legislation (defining access to, and the use of, driving-related data collected by OEMs) will have to keep pace with technology.
THE ROAD AHEAD
As explained above, IoT will bring many benefits to the end user, improving the driving experience in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. It will also bring new ways of working for OEMs and vendors, along with a fresh set of challenges for which car manufacturers will need to collaborate extensively with IT companies and connectivity/software solutions providers. IoT will change and redefine the ways cars are designed and manufactured (not just 3D prototyping, but also 3D printing of parts and components, especially in the case of specialised, low-volume vehicles), sold and marketed (think virtual showrooms on the web, where users can fully customise and configure their ride before the vehicle is delivered to their doorstep), and configured for entertainment and connectivity. The industrial revolution was a start for personal mobility. The Internet of Things will bring the next phase of development and evolution to the car.
TEXT: Sameer Kumar