Developers: Cars Are the Next IoT Frontier

In the 1970s, almost all of your car’s value could be defined by the materials of the car itself; the power of its motor, the quality of its stereo system, the luxurious material of its seats. By the year 2025, roughly half of a car’s value will be defined by its intangible features: its software and user experience.

To keep up with the constantly changing nature of technology, auto companies employ a method for updating software without requiring car owners to come into dealerships every time: over-the-air (OTA) upgrades. Some estimates suggest that 98% of automobiles will feature some form of technology serviced by OTA upgrades by 2025.

OTA upgrades benefit the manufacturer over the course of a car’s life; consider the cost of a software-related recall that could be fixed by a simple patch. In the past two years alone, the recall rate of cars rose to nearly 50%, and analysis by ABI Research suggests one-third of those recalls could have been addressed by OTA upgrades — saving manufacturers an estimated $6 billion.

Vehicle upgrades via OTA services can also breathe life into second- and third-generation car owners, who may opt for the same services the original owner declined, particularly if advances have been made in the intervening years to those applications and services.

The capabilities of software and IoT to enhance the driving experience poses new and exhilarating challenges for developers. What should they focus on to build tech for our future cars? How can developers use their skills to improve the OTA experience for both automakers and car owners?

It all starts with a change in mindset. Cars are no longer just vehicles; they’re digital devices. Here’s what developers need to think about in order to think about cars as IoT devices and successfully build software for the future of driving.

Designing for a holistic software ecosystem

The first step in approaching vehicles as IoT devices is realizing that from now on, tech developed for cars must be compatible with all software ecosystems. The connected nature of IoT leads developers to be hyper-aware of the compatibility between their apps and those created by others. When an IoT developer produces an app, you can guess it’s been thoroughly tested on all devices — from mobile to desktop — and across all operating systems — from iOS and Android to Windows. Developers in the IoT space have thought about this from the very beginning.

This hasn’t historically been a consideration in development for the auto industry. A navigation system built into your sedan, which certainly was an impressive piece of software, hasn’t had to interact with other navigation systems, or with other devices within the car. The hardware and software you build for the cars of tomorrow will not exist in a silo; it will exist amid a vast network of other devices.

Developers who want to excel in the auto industry will need to align their technology with all software ecosystems. Consider the end user for your product. Will they get in their car with an iPhone? A Samsung Galaxy? Or perhaps, a Google Pixel? The answer (if you achieve a successful product) is all of the above. Your technology should be prepared to interact with and sync with any software environment that your consumers may use.

For most car manufacturers, moving forward with the IoT mindset isn’t a choice — it’s a necessity. Tesla is paving the road, and the rest of today’s auto manufacturers will be forced to follow along this evolutionary path. Most vehicle manufacturers haven’t had to face the challenge of considering whether their models are compatible with Google, Amazon, or Apple products; it’s on developers to evolve with the industry and provide car manufacturers with technology that fits a holistic software ecosystem.

Decoupling car development from tech development

The production of a physical vehicle doesn’t occur in a single location, making it a logistical challenge to monitor software during the manufacturing process. OTA changes all of that. The beauty of OTA is that no matter where vehicles are assembled, and no matter which dealerships they’re sent to after assembly, they can all be synced with the latest software improvements wirelessly.

As a developer, this means you aren’t building a product that needs to ship with  the car — your tech doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect when the vehicle model is ready; it may not even need to be finished. This opens the door to more IoT developers than ever before, making it even more accessible to design (and improve) apps for the auto industry and add these updates after a car has been released to the public.

This is already commonplace in the gaming industry. The physical release of a game is not necessarily tied to the completion of the game’s software. While it takes a few months to get the product packaged and ready to be sold in stores, the development team can continue to make updates and improvements to the game’s software. More often than not, modern games are released with a “day-one patch,” an update that users can immediately download upon purchasing the game — usually this patch fixes bugs or further improves upon the latest version of the software before the game was released.

In the same way, OTA upgrades allow developers to fix issues and add software features even after the car has left the factory. This serves to further increase the usability of a vehicle over time by continuously improving the experience for the consumer. For developers, it means opportunities to produce and implement new tech, quickly address issues, and improve existing products independently of the vehicle’s release and sale. Future OTA updates will likely take this above and beyond, diagnosing potential problems even before they arise and providing silent support to the consumer.

Approaching security from an IoT perspective

Unauthorized access to vehicle software looms as a real concern for safety and privacy, and auto developers must be diligent in keeping their networks secure from hackers. Someone who breaks into a car doesn’t just have access to its owner’s glove compartment; they may have access to their home address, text or email messages, and other personal information. That’s not to mention the growing fear that cybercriminals will be able to hack into vehicles and take control of the mechanical functions. (Two security researchers rather famously demonstrated this vulnerability by hacking a Jeep in 2014.)

As with all IoT devices, developers need to employ multi-factor authentication to all apps for the auto industry. Think carefully about designing functions to act separately from each other; in the case that one feature is unlocked or compromised, will it put adjacent features at risk? Partitioning may mitigate the risk of hacks and keep banks of information fully separate.

Requiring consumers to be online (always-on or mostly-on)

Manufacturers and developers will need to address customer responsiveness to updates. Consumers will likely need to be prodded to complete firmware updates, especially those that relate to vehicle safety. This may take the form of a user agreement requiring consumers to connect online on a regular basis to ensure critical updates can reach them.

This isn’t a matter of whether you can smoothly repair an issue via OTA, but whether you can be certain all of your consumers will receive the update. What if the network connection in a user’s car has been compromised? Will users be able to disable the internet connection in their cars? It’s become an increasing challenge for developers to guarantee that necessary updates reach all consumers.

Microsoft received backlash for this in 2013, when the tech giant first tried to move to an always-online model, with its release of the Xbox One gaming console. Unfortunately, the company caused more confusion than clarity in its attempts to explain to anxious consumers why the console needed to remain connected to the internet. Regardless of the company’s skills in soothing customers, the concept of keeping a device online at all times isn’t all that ridiculous. It not only prevents the illegal and unauthorized transfer of products between consumer hands, but also ensures the developer can reach out to send necessary updates.

The truth is, we are moving to an always-online world. IoT developers build products under the assumption that people are always online — the auto industry may not have to face the same type of public disapproval that plagued the gaming industry. Perhaps, the responsibility won’t fall entirely on app developers to “require” that users keep their cars connected to the Internet. It’s possible that manufacturers will simply include cellular chips in all vehicles, which keep vehicles automatically connected to cellular networks. Think of it less as a user-managed internet connection, and more as a direct line to the manufacturer, ensuring the ability to provide updates.

It’s up to developers to design automotive software with requirements or safeguards that enforce the ability of the developer to send updates to the consumer. When those updates relate to safety, the importance of this cannot be understated.

Charging fees for “luxury” improvements

While it’s clear that necessary safety-related updates and patches should be promptly delivered to the consumer, not all software updates are needed. What about new content, features, or other enhancements added to the software over time? Developers in the auto industry must start thinking about this, as OTA enables not just wireless safety updates, but also potential transactions with existing consumers who are willing to pay a fee to upgrade their car’s software.

This will also require developers to carefully consider the difference between necessary updates, and luxury updates. Which improvements are your consumers entitled to receiving? Which are “extras” (or non-mandatory for the app to function), allowing you to charge for them?

Charging fees for upgrades can become a slippery and dangerous slope, as some gaming companies have discovered the hard way. As mentioned above, day-one patches come out with most modern game releases, and gamers have grown quite used to them. In an attempted similar vein, the game Evolve was released in 2015 with “day-one DLC” (downloadable content), which gamers could purchase for $60. Unlike a free patch — which fixes existing bugs in the software or otherwise makes the game run smoother, DLC is additional content for the game itself. Consumers did not appreciate being prompted to pay for the game (which sold for $60 itself) and  pay to download what they viewed as the “rest” of the game’s content (for another $60).

The lesson from game developers to IoT developers? Don’t push your limits with your consumers.

Manufacturers may provide certain entertainment-based or luxury updates as a fee-based system. Tesla, for instance, already employs this model for its Autopilot feature to turn the car into a fully autonomous machine. They charge $2,500 to $10,000 for this upgrade. Most users are willing to pay a reasonable amount for desireable or luxurious enhancements to their devices, but be wary of overplaying your hand. If you make your consumers feel as if they’re being nickel-and-dimed simply to receive the basic substance of your product, you’ll alienate your audience quickly.

Making the user experience incredible

A new challenge for developers of auto technology is to keep up with existing tech giants, especially in the smartphone space. A study by J.D. Power and Associates found that it’s extremely important to modern car owners that their vehicles can integrate with their smartphones. The study revealed that one of the biggest pain points for consumers comes throughout their ownership of the vehicle (often more than five years), as the upgrades to the car’s software lag significantly behind the upgrades to their smartphones.

With the speed at which tech companies produce and enhance mobile devices, consumers are finding that their smartphones quickly outpace their vehicles and that they lose the ability to connect them smoothly. This is a critical opportunity for IoT developers, and it comes down to the sheer importance of user experience (UX).

Despite the proliferation of “infotainment systems” in many new car models, customers still rely heavily on their smartphones for functions like music or navigation. One of the main reasons for this is likely the vast difference between the fixed look-and-feel of the car’s software, and the sleek and ever-improving user experience that comes with most modern smartphones. Software that comes with the vehicle itself has traditionally been difficult to upgrade after purchase, rendering the UX outdated almost as soon as the car leaves the dealership.

IoT developers in the auto industry can fill consumer needs in two ways: by providing OTA upgrades that keep their auto tech compatible with the latest generation of mobile operating systems; and by delivering OTA upgrades that consistently improve and modernize the UX for the car’s own software, finally enabling vehicle apps to compete with mobile ones.

It’s not enough to build a top-notch UX and then leave it to rest on its laurels. Just like with any device built for IoT, developers need to plan to make regular improvements to their UX — constantly finding ways to make the product easier to use, more responsive to user needs, and more enjoyable for users overall. Many consumers purchase a vehicle with the intent to own it for the long term. Users are going to expect a high attention to UX in their auto software just as they currently expect it in their mobile devices, tablets, and laptops.

Software that never makes UX improvements is quickly buried by new tech that examines consumers’ pain points and meets their needs in new, faster and more convenient ways.

Driving into a new age

Just as our mobile phones are no longer solely used for making phone calls, our cars are no longer simply get us from point A to point B. Our vehicles are IoT devices; and the sooner developers accept and adopt this mindset, the better they can meet consumer needs with innovations in automotive software.

Consumers expect excellence in entertainment, navigation, compatibility, security, and user interface. That excellence, in many ways, will come in the form of OTA upgrades, which will allow developers to continue repairing and improving software throughout a vehicle’s life. As easily as users can tap a finger to update their smartphone’s apps, they’ll also be able to update the apps in their cars, keeping up with the latest in automotive tech.

A good driving experience now relies on a smooth user experience — a term the auto industry must become familiar with quickly. Automotive manufacturers will be looking to IoT developers to upgrade their vehicles to address expanding consumer desires. For developers who rise to meet the challenge, this offers a fantastic opportunity to blaze a trail in the automotive space, guiding the modern car into the world of IoT.

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