If you keep your cars for more than a couple of years, and relish making the most of in-vehicle connectivity features, you’re probably familiar with a certain form of disappointment: You get a new smartphone, and suddenly discover that it’s no longer fully compatible with your vehicle interface—or that your vehicle isn’t advanced enough to recognize some of the coolest new features offered through your phone.
What we carry is often completely out of sync with what we drive. With the average smartphone user replacing their handset every 18 months, by some electronics industry figures, and many households keeping their vehicles eight years or more, there has to be a better solution.
Why can’t either the smartphones be made a little more flexible and back-compatible, or that vehicle connectivity be more easily upgraded?
Hope in modularization?
Now there’s some hope—in the form of a project from a team called Project Ara, which is part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. It aims to modularize our personal phones and allow us to personalize them in a way that fits us, and how we use them (what we connect them to, for instance).
Phones are the first focus of what it calls “a modular hardware ecosystem.” The Project Ara phones will have an exoskeleton, with individual modules that will slide and click, magnetically, into place.
Information pages clarify that it’s a development effort and not an official Google product. It’s also not an official Android or Nexus product, although it will run a form of the Android operating system.
Those behind the project point to varied benefits of a modular platform. You get to pick your own equipment or features, for instance; you could swap modules with friends or family depending on needs; or you could replace broken parts as needed, rather than throwing away the whole phone.
Could completely change the viability of hardware upgrades
All this transfers to those issues with vehicle systems and their rapid obsolescence. You could replace modules in your phone to gain completely new hardware for better connectivity with your vehicle, rather than settling for compromised connectivity or a handset with features you don’t necessarily want—or a laggy software upgrade installed on still-old hardware.
Or, perhaps if automakers permit, it could eventually be as easy as clicking a new module into place in your car—if there’s a faster data speed or a new connection protocol, for instance; or perhaps, with the right security, to enable an autonomous-vehicle feature already allowed by hardware.
Don’t get too excited yet, as there’s no official word that such modularization is headed into vehicles. Although as Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research suggests, “Manufacturers could even produce aftermarket systems to allow the installation of Ara modules into existing vehicles, enabling them to join in with the expanded connected vehicle ecosystem.”
“Decoupling the communications technology from the vehicle lifecycle could enable drivers to keep existing vehicles on the road while gaining the potential safety and efficiency benefits powered by ever-more affordable and capable electronic systems,” sums Abuelsamid.
With a Project Ara product expected for a limited market pilot this year, the idea will soon get a real-world test. And we hope automakers are watching closely.