Automakers and tech companies are in a rat race to bring safer and more useful smartphone-style interfaces to cars. How will this race end up? Will they succeed in reprogramming completely the vehicles by embracing the Innovative Marketing strategy?
Computerization in automotive industry goes way back
Nowadays, cars are far more computerized than they might seem. As early as the late 1970s, automakers began making use of integrated circuits to monitor and control basic engine functions. Furthermore computerization accelerated in the 1980s as a result of regulations on fuel efficiency and gas emissions put in place, requiring even better engine control. In 1982, for instance, in some car models, computers began taking full control of the automatic transmission.
On the other hand, modern cars now have between 50 and 100 computers and run millions of lines of code. An internal network, which connects these computers, allows a mechanic or dealer to assess a car’s health through a diagnostic port located just below the steering wheel. Some carmakers remotely diagnose problems with vehicles via a wireless link, and it’s possible to plug a gadget into your car’s diagnostic port to identify engine problems or track driving habits via a smartphone app.
The Tesla revolution
Tesla Motors, has designed what’s probably the world’s most computerized consumer car. The Model S, the electric sedan released in 2012, has a 17-inch touch-screen display, a 3G cellular connection, and even a Web browser. The touch screen shows entertainment apps, a map with nearby charging stations, and details about status of the car’s battery. But it can also customise all sorts of vehicle settings, including those managing the suspension and the acceleration mode from “normal” to “sport” or from “sport” to “insane”.
Every few months, Tesla owners receive a software update that adds new functions to their vehicle. Since the Model S was released, these have included more detailed maps, better acceleration, a hill-start mode that stops the car from rolling backwards, and a blind-spot warning for car models having the right sensors. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has announced that a software patch released this summer would add automated highway driving to suitably equipped models.
Till the end of 2013, the company faced a safety scare when several Model S cars caught fire after running over debris that ruptured their battery packs. Tesla engineers believed the fires to be rare events, and they knew it implied raising the suspension on every Model S on the road. Instead of requiring owners to bring their cars to a mechanic, Tesla released a patch over the airwaves that adjusted the suspension to keep the Model S elevated at higher speeds, greatly reducing the chance of further accidents.