It’s May 2025, and you are headed to a business meeting on a blue-sky morning. The windshield’s electronic smart tint has kicked in to shield the sun’s glare so you can scan messages and the news stream on your heads-up display. Traffic is light—half the cars on the road are fully autonomous, keeping everything moving along at a comfortable clip. The phone rings and the news stream pauses. It’s your first-grade daughter’s smiling face on the HUD, wishing you—again!—happy birthday.
It hasn’t been lost on automakers that the driving experience is currently going through a rapid overhaul. Today, you’ll find an intense focus on how we stay connected with the world outside when we’re behind the wheel—that is, while we still need steering wheels. Our vehicles were once our cocoons, insulating us from the world outside, but now we demand vehicles that include a host of new experiences and connectivity features—and we’re all along for the ride.
“We’re moving from being just a hardware provider to being a hardware, software, and experiences provider,” says Don Butler, head of Connected Vehicle and Services for Ford Motor Company. “The future is going to be different, and we are embracing that difference, and we’ll continue to be a part of people’s lives.”
The Connectivity Curve
Ever since Samuel Morse tapped out his first telegraph message in 1838, inventors have been drawn to the concept of connectivity. The discovery of radio waves, the telephone and, of course, the Internet has only fueled our desire to stay connected in every possible way—and the automobile is part of the same evolution. From CB radios to monstrous car phones, drivers have often gone to seemingly any length to make sure their drive time didn’t mean they were out of the loop.
The idea of being “unplugged” for longer than it takes to grab a cup of coffee is anathema to most of the world’s population. Why? Because connectivity is now seen as an essential need, akin to water and clothing. Consider: There are now more mobile phones than people on the planet. The typical 20-year-old uses his phone to send over 2,000 text messages a month, share status updates with upwards of 500 friends, or access one of the over 3 million apps available.
The business world hasn’t slept through all of this, of course. Connectivity has become a key product feature that is being incorporated into, well, everything. The Internet of Things (IoT), for instance, didn’t exist as a marketplace until just a few years ago, but by 2017 there will be more IoT devices in use around the world than mobile phones. Gartner, a global technology research firm, estimates that by 2020 there will be a whopping 50 billion IoT devices installed worldwide—many of them in our cars. Considering the 280 hours per year the average American spends behind the wheel, there’s real pressure to make that time productive, or at least entertaining, and it’s turning your car into an intensely personalized and customized extension of yourself.
A New Vision for Mobility
What is now emerging from the auto industry is a vision that is not about merely moving us from point A to point B, but, as Ford CEO Mark Fields has put it, one of “changing the way the world moves.”
Connectivity is at the heart of all of this, driving a huge number of innovations that are either here now or in the works. Ford SYNC technology, for instance, lets a driver not just make hands-free phone calls but also control the entertainment, climate and navigation systems using her voice*. That’s really just the beginning. New SYNC Connect technology will let you remotely start your vehicle, unlock the doors, check the fuel level, and much more from your smartphone, operating through the new FordPass app, available this Spring.
And, it’s not just about keeping you comfortable while you’re on the road. Soon, SYNC Connect will be compatible with Amazon Echo, so you will be able to simply voice control your car from the comfort of your home. The push for connectivity is also driving features that let you share vehicles with other people or integrate your car with a home security system. The car of tomorrow has even been referred to as the “ultimate mobile device.”
Connectivity implies a link, and ultimately communication, between machines and people, and to the Internet of Things.
Certain vehicles are already being built with driver assistance technology to help keep cars from drifting out of lane, monitor blind spots and more. But soon, thanks to research from Ford and others, your car will be able to offer more personal assistance, too—monitoring your vital signs by linking up to a fitness band or other wearable or if the car detects you’re nodding off, the vehicle can react automatically. Or, if your fitness band detects an increase in heart rate, adaptive cruise control may kick in and give you more breathing room from the car ahead of you.
As Yifan Chen, a researcher at the Ford Research Automotive Wearable Experiences Lab, explains, “We’re trying to understand wearable devices and their capability in a way that is robust, accurate, and can be used to develop sophisticated mathematical algorithms to determine the driver’s physical and mental state.” Advances like these are paving the way for a future of autonomous vehicles, incorporating cloud-based computing technologies and smart sensors to get us where we need to go, confidently and expediently.
The car itself may be changing dramatically—but then again, the notion of “Let’s go for a drive” has always been more about the journey than the destination.
Open Source Is Accelerating the Pace
One of the biggest changes in the auto industry in recent years is simple. These aren’t “car companies” any longer—they’re software companies.
Given that a typical car now contains millions of lines of computer code that govern everything under the hood (and beyond), one way companies are innovating fast and efficiently is through the development and adoption of open-source software.
These aren’t “car companies” any longer—they’re software companies.
SmartDeviceLink is one such platform pioneered by Ford that allows vehicle computing platforms to communicate with mobile devices and the apps they are running. SYNC AppLink™ uses SDL to bridge the gap between your car and your phone. And it’s catching on: other manufacturers are working on incorporating the technology in their vehicles.
Open source software is the opposite of traditional, proprietary code. Rather than being defined by a closed system, open source code can be adopted and contributed to by essentially anyone. The goal of open source is a more stable and robust code base that provides for faster product development and better interoperability – a key selling point in a world where hundreds of companies are making devices that need to work together seamlessly.