Viewpoint: How mobile technology is accelerating the auto industry

Every few years a gadget comes along that takes Silicon Valley by storm, before going on to conquer the world. A few years ago it was the tablet. Before that it was the smartphone. And before that it was the MP3 player.

Well, we’re all in love again, but this time it’s not with a device that you can slip into your pocket. This time, we are in love with a car: the new Tesla Model S. Sure, it has four wheels and four doors. But this is no ordinary automobile. It’s a low-flying starship.

Slip behind the wheel and, rather than staring at twitchy analog dials and gauges, a high-resolution digital display puts the car’s speed, range, audio controls and trip information in front of you, in clear, crisp color.

And instead of a center stack cluttered with clicky plastic switches, the Model S has a 17-inch touch screen that smoothly morphs into whatever is needed at the moment, whether it is directions or the controls you need to adjust the sunroof.

You can even reach deep into the vehicle’s systems to fine-tune the way the car drives or uses energy – all without leaving the comfort of the car’s passenger compartment to crack open the hood.

The road ahead

The Model S is only one example of the “science fiction” stuff that's already on the road. As automakers pour technology from the world's latest smartphones and tablets into automobiles, powerful mobile chips are being matched with popular mobile applications and advanced wireless data services.

This combination is starting to transform what drivers and passengers expect of their cars. According to a 2012 Harris poll, more than half of car owners already find that integrated in-vehicle connectivity enhances their enjoyment and makes them feel safer while on the road.

And when it comes to new car purchase decisions, two in three car owners between 18 and 35 years of age say their vehicle's technology has some or a great deal of influence on the next car they choose.

Keeping up with mobile

But it doesn’t mean that automakers have to remake their cars at the same frenetic pace we’re seeing in smartphones and tablets. Instead, automakers can take advantage of innovations like our Visual Computing Module (VCM) to keep pace with the latest mobile technologies.

By separating the systems that don't change as frequently (CAN bus or Wi-Fi) from those that do (mobile application processors and memory density), automakers don’t have to build an entire system from scratch each model year. By building in a powerful processor, the life of that system will be dramatically improved. And software upgrades will keep the system fresh.

For example, there are two NVIDIA Tegra processors in the Model S, one driving the all-digital, configurable instrument cluster, the other driving the 17-inch touch screen. And, by leveraging the VCM approach, Tesla is able to quickly move from Tegra 2 to Tegra 3 to Tegra 4, and beyond.

Because of the modular approach it has taken, Tesla was, for example, able to bring to market the same computing technology in the Model S that Microsoft simultaneously delivered in the Surface tablet.

(For more on keepin up with consumer expectations, see Customizing global telematics HMIs for local markets, Telematics and hybrid approach to content delivery and Industry insight: Telematics and the human-machine interface.)

Mainstream luxury

All this strategy makes it possible to start bringing advanced features once associated with luxury brands into the mainstream. And it lets automakers innovate much faster, by bending pixels rather than sheet metal.

Take digital instrument clusters. Their dynamic nature already puts the right information in front of the driver at the right time. But they are also customizable; drivers can look at the information they need most. And they are easy to personalize by downloading and swapping out new themes to keep the driving experience fresh.

That’s a better experience for drivers and a more economical model for carmakers, who will be able to sculpt a digital experience that reflects a specific design aesthetic much like the exterior curves of their cars.

More to come

There’s more to come. Our new Jetson development platform aims to offer automakers a look at the road ahead by giving them access to the technologies that will appear in next-generation mobile devices.

Jetson combines today's Tegra mobile application processor with a discrete, high-performance GPU. This means developers can use an existing platform by emulating the performance and capabilities of future Tegra processors.

These are technologies originally born on supercomputers, and they promise to unlock a new generation of visual computing technologies, such as pedestrian detection, lane departure warning and collision avoidance. Combine these technologies and you're looking at autonomous driving.

The challenge has always been to bring the cost and complexity of these systems down far enough to put them within reach of everyday drivers. The growing sophistication of today’s mass market mobile technologies will provide the tools to meet this challenge, and it will be sooner than many expect.

Within the next few years, backseat passengers will be able to, for example, take advantage of sophisticated video streaming services. Replacing portable DVD players is just a start for these cloud-based solutions. Two-way video communication links and interactive games are coming too.

Rather than being a sterile experience, cars will become cocoons filled with rich educational and entertainment content. Your kids will never again whine, ‘Are we there yet?’ Instead, you may have trouble getting them out of the car. 

Danny Shapiro is director of automotive at NVIDIA.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6,Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich, V2V & V2I for Auto Safety USA 2013 on July 9-10 in Novi, MI, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago,Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013 in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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