DETROIT - Within two years, a technology company such as Google, Apple or Samsung will be offering a car packed with the latest mobile connectivity features.
Thilo Koslowski, vice president of Automotive Industry Advisory Services at Gartner, issued that warning to thousands on hand for the Telematics Detroit 2014 Conference this week. Simply put, auto manufacturers must do a better job of offering mobile technology themselves or have their lunch eaten by potnential rivals in the tech industry.
"This is the year, this is the time that the auto industry has to go out there and really start embracing technology," Kowlowski said. "Technology will really kind of define the future of the automotive industry. This is a defining moment."
Koslowski pointed to Google and its self driving car, mobile digital distribution platforms such as Google Play and in-car smartphone connectivity platforms, such Apple's CarPlay, as signs of bigger things to come.
"They [the tech companies] have control and access to the vehicle. That's something the auto industry has to keep an eye on," Koslowski said. "The car manufacturers seem to be willing to grant access."
Kowlowski warned that once mega-tech companies have access to in-car infotainment systems, it becomes more difficult for car manufacturers to seprate themselves from competitors.
According to a recent Gartner survey, 58% of consumers already believe car manufacturers should allow tech companies to develop in-vehicle technology. "Once you invite some of these companies to have space on your dashboard, it becomes more difficult for you as an automotive organization to stand out," Koslowski said.
That message was not lost on executives from car manufacturers here.
Speaking as part of a panel, Don Butler, Ford's executive director of Connected Vehicles and Services, said incoming CEO Mark Fields is keenly aware of the issue. "It's quite obvious there are other folks and other ecosystems that are intruding on the car space. He's very keen on that, as well as...looking at how do we create value, how do we protect value and how do we continue to deliver or differentiate an experience for our customers," Butler said.
Butler also admitted that at his company many elements of vehicle "connectivity" are disconnected as part of a worldwide organization. "We need to coordinate and develop a coherent strategy going forward," Butler said. "For the last few months, that's what I've been helping the organization to do."
Either the auto industry begins offering the kinds of Internet-connected features consumers have come to expect from mobile devices, or the tech companies will step into the auto industry and do it for them, Koslowski said.
Executives in charge of the infotainment/telematics divisions at GM, KIA and Ford recognized their companies are behind the curve and need to discover better ways of addressing mobile connectivity needs.
It's not just offering more mobile apps for drivers, they agreed; it's about getting the critical apps such as entertainment, navigation and news updates right -- and making them effective and simple to use.
Phil Abram, chief infotainment officer for GM, said the fact that GM plans to have 4G wireless connectivity on 40 models in the coming year proves "this is mainline to General Motors."
Abram said mobile connectivity should be buried in the car, and not something called out in shiny new apps. It should just be a part of the car's working ecosystem.
"If our customers are talking about technology, we're screwed up," Abram said. "When was the last time you went electric motor shopping for your kitchen? Nobody does that, however, you own... electric motors. I don't think people care at all about the connected car. It's like talking about transmission fluid. You don't. You just expect it to be there," Abram said.
What people care about is whether a car can make them safer and make their life easier.
Koslowski said the top three applications consumers want, based on studies, is current traffic information, real-time map updates, weather and news updates, parking information and Internet radio.
They are also interested in having their car connect to the Internet of Things, meaning a vehicle's telematics system will be aware of wireless devices in a driver's home and office.
For some, that means being able to have automatic alerts sent from their home or office to their car. And about 14% of drivers surveyed by Gartner said they'd also like to be able to make purchases of services from their cars.
When it comes to sharing data generated by in-car computers, Kowlowski warned automakers to beware of getting "creepy" and being too invasive. Data, he said, should be used to offer services, not violate privacy.
That said, Koslowski added, there may come a time when drivers will be required to hand over vehicle data to the government, remembering that "driving is a privilege and not a right.
"That right may be redefined in the future," he said.
Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is [email protected].
Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.