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Cars Can and Should be More Like Phones

by Roger Lanctot | 11月 09, 2013

It wasn’t enough that my 2013 BMW couldn’t handle Daylight Savings Time, failing once again in its twice a year duty to set back its clock, it also was incapable of handling a map update. I bit the bullet last week, accepted my fate and paid the $255 vigorish for the new map and the update failed. My experience highlights two important problems with connected cars that the industry must overcome.

Issue #1: Cars must have the latest map data. Cars equipped with navigation systems all over the world normally have maps that are no newer than six months old. Old maps create driver distractions and the potential for accidents. How car makers have allowed this state of affairs to continue is incomprehensible. It is one of the most serious problems facing the industry.

Issue #2: Cars should be more like phones on wheels.  Even cars equipped with embedded modems – just like mobile phones – are far from behaving like mobile phones.  The embedded modem is isolated from most vehicle systems for fear of hacking and also to limit the use of the device.  In other words, instead of using the embedded device as a cost avoidance tool for anticipating and fixing problems with on-board hardware and software, car makers are trying to avoid the cost of using the embedded device.

Status of Issue #1:  My personal experience with map updates has been expensive, annoying, disappointing and frightening.  I have invested approximately $1,500 over the past 10 years in map updates for vehicles I have owned.  My latest experience was perhaps the most disappointing.

During an oil change visit to the dealer I asked if the dealer could update my on-board map – since I had received an email alert that one was available.  The dealer said that they’d first have to get a code and then once they had the code the update process would be at least 1.5 hours – probably longer. 

I decided to order the map update and try to do the installation myself – which is recommended.  I paid the $255 (including tax) for the thumb drive containing 2014 Version 1A of TomTom’s map of North America for my 2013 BMW.  I plugged the thumb drive in and went for a drive while it downloaded.

Once the update was done downloading to the car, the car displayed a message (see attachments):

“USB device data is not the latest version.  Start update anyway?”

I drove to the dealer to get a consult on the situation.  The dealer could not explain why this message was displaying.  Two hours later, I was told that the technician had used the dealer’s own 2014 map to update my navigation system.

The number of failure points is impressive:

1.      Update notification – generic and impersonal – The customer has to enter his or her personal information and VIN # to obtain the map update.  This process should have been handled in a more direct personal way perhaps via a portal and/or with an integrated smartphone element.  (Most customers will NOT have their VIN handy and the car maker ought to be managing this customer and vehicle identification information.)

2.      Map update is way too expensive – At $255, the map update is prohibitively expensive – which explains why only about 5% of car owners update their maps.

3.      There is no concierge experience for the customer that is crazy enough to update his or her maps.  At $255, there should be coffee and donuts, soft cushions, calming music, theater tickets … SOMETHING!

4.      Did the update really happen?  The customer will need to drive to some area with new construction to see if his or her map data was actually updated.  Otherwise, how would someone know?  The supporting documents claim massive amounts of added data, categories, POIs, etc. – but this is not obvious to the user.  (How about a document accessible online that portrays significant regional map updates or enhancements?)

5.      The thumb drive with the BMW map update had storage capacity of 32G of which 21G was used, suggesting an extraordinary amount of content (unless it was poorly compressed) – yet there is nowhere to discover precisely what is included.

What is the industry doing to address the problem of map updates?  Companies such as Ford, Mazda and GM have begun putting map data on thumb drives to hit lower price points and to make map updating easier.  But maps are still old and updates are still expensive.

Ford enables a turn-by-turn navigation experience via the connected smartphone without full map navigation.  TeleNav and deCarta are working on hybrid (on-board/off-board) navigation experiences.  Tesla uses the on-board modem in the Model S to stream Google’s map, which is fine as long as there is a connection.

Daimler and Kia intend to offer European customers a few free map updates as a customer relationship tool with new cars, but the strategy has not been widely adopted by competing car makers.  Navigation software supplier NNG is focusing on the problem with its NavFusion campaign.

NNG’s strategy is to include navigation in all cars but allow the customer to “unlock” the on-board application via a connected smartphone.  Once unlocked in this way, the smartphone app is updated routinely via the app store process, and then the smartphone passively updates the vehicle system when connected.  The brilliance of NNG’s approach is that it gets the customer to connect their phone to the car - a step that too often fails to hapen - and enables a map updating experience via the connected phone - requiring no additional license fee.

NNG is exploring a variety of models for bringing its map updating concept to the market including enabling incremental (country by country or state by state) updates that will be more manageable in size.  The possibility also exists for publicly accessible map Wi-Fi “top-up stations” at dealerships.

The bottom line for the industry is that map updates remain a significant unsolved problem.  And unsolved problems represent opportunity.  Consumers responding in countless surveys have made clear their interest in map updates.  The existing map update rate of 5% suggests a significant upside opportunity.

In fact, even a 10% or 20% improvement in map updating would translate into significant revenue for car makers and their suppliers.  Even more important is the fact that map updates can be converted by dealerships into profitable aftermarket revenue, new car sales and other customer engagement opportunities.

It is also worth noting that companies such as HERE and TomTom claim to be updating their map data on a daily basis.  Google and OpenStreetMaps are also updating on an increasingly frequent basis.  The industry needs to focus on narrowing the gap between map updating and map update delivery.  The immensity of this gap suggests the possibility for disruptive change and new thinking.

Status of Issue #2:  Cars acting more like smartphones on wheels. 

Cars are still pretty stupid.  But cars with activated embedded modems have no excuse for being stupid.  The on-board modem ought to be the core of the car’s brain and, combined with an on-board map, should be capable of rendering a contextually aware experience for the driver.

The fact that my BMW, in fact every BMW, still does not understand Daylight Savings Time is but one fundamental and obvious indication that cars are still pretty stupid, even the ones with modems.  As the industry shifts inexorably toward embedded modems, and LTE modules in particular, the day of the stupid car should be put behind us.  If the simplest electronic products can cope with Daylight Savings Time, a sophisticated $50,000 mobile electronics device should be able to keep up.  Our industry depends on it.

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