Commentary

New York Auto Show Will Be As Much About The Connection As Cars

Automotive technology will be as big a star at the New York International Auto Show, which starts this week, as the cars themselves. Tesla has upped the bar again by announcing it will have something like an autonomous car this year, That would seem to put pressure on the brick-by-brick, autonomy-by-evolution approach the industry subscribes to at large. 

If Tesla's announcement says anything, it makes a statement about the speed of change. After years of lagging the mobile device world, it seems the telematics and infotainment space is hitting the technological autobahn at speed. Jim Sanfilippo, industry consultant, says the change is huge. And he also opines that the press pretty much missed Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s throwing down of the autonomous-car gauntlet. “A year ago we were like children talking tech, and in a year, with things like the ability to put Tesla on autopilot,  its gone from telephones and Bluetooth to driverless cars.”

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Yes, when automakers talk tech at the show, the focus will be on the human-machine interface, and probably not so much on alternative powertrains. We don't expect to hear a lot about electric, hydrogen, hybrid, etc. this time for two reasons. First, the Los Angeles Auto Show is home base for powertrain horn-blowing. Second, innovations in the world of the connected/autonomous car are moving as fast as extra-vehicular innovations. Everyone has something to talk about.

Consider Buick's Avenir, a concept introduced at an event on Monday in New York. The company is touting the car for where the automaker is going with telematics technology as much as for the powertrain and design language. For one thing, the car has some semi-autonomous features, and all kinds of telematics features, like destination programming grabbed from social media review sites like Yelp, via Buick’s Intellilink platform, which also lets the driver activate home technology, with the ability to remotely open or close the garage. 

While GM and others will definitely talk about 4G LTE, which GM now has on pretty much all of its cars, what we probably won't hear much about is data mining and security, even though automakers also have in-house cyber-security teams. For data to have value, whether for empowering drivers, delivering information to autonomous driving systems or toward B2B arrangements, it has to be secure and “clean.” 

And issues around that, and around automatic delivery of software upgrades, will be a challenge to the legal world.

Sanfilippo notes that a recent class action suit against Hyundai around its Blue Link telematics system is emblematic of how complex things might get. Six plaintiffs reportedly have argued that Hyundai has no right to disable Blue Link if owners don't keep their subscriptions current and software downloaded. The system, launched in 2012, allegedly will be permanently disabled if the owner of the vehicle lets the subscribed services lapse for a year. Like most such systems, owners have to pay for the service after a free trial expires. To then reactivate, users would need to pay $500 for new equipment. 

“So now we are already into a whole area of the law that doesn't exist yet,” notes Sanfilippo. “For automakers [from their perspective], the technology is accelerating so fast they don't want fleets of cars with old tech rolling around.” Begin considering the legal tangles that will ensue when we get into data privacy with connected cars, and who's at fault when an autonomous vehicle makes a split “decision” that leads to a collision. We won't hear much about this on Wednesday and Thursday this week, but it will most certainly be on the docket at the Telematics Update conference this June in Detroit. And in legal dockets with increasing frequency moving forward.

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