Stop Thinking of Cars as Computers on Wheels

Saint El Camino: Our Lady of Internal Combustion (David Stephens, 2013)

Is a Car Really Just a Computer on Wheels?

I am sure you have heard it before: your car is just a computer on wheels. It’s an opinion most common among the numerous startups and entrepreneurs with minimal industry experience attempting to jump on the automotive innovation bandwagon. I heard it again last week at an industry panel I participated in.

It’s true that modern cars incorporate a growing number of powerful computers that control most vehicle operations and interactions with driver and passengers, and with the outside world.

But whether thought-provoking or plain cute and trying to impress the audience, the assumption that these computers render a car as not much more than a powerful computer on wheels is not only inaccurate, it can be self-limiting and leading those new entrants astray.

More Than a Computer on Wheels

Modern cars employ a large number of mechanical systems that provide safety and comfort to occupants. Cars are mechanical steering, braking, and suspension systems on wheels; they are air conditioning systems on wheels; they provide weather protection on wheels.

Additionally, much of the engineering and manufacturing effort, cost, and weight of a car is due to passive, non-computerized, safety features. While ADAS and automated driving will reduce and perhaps, one day, will make passive safety redundant, it will be a couple of decades before these systems are considered a thing of the past. Even if all new cars are capable of avoiding 100 percent of the collisions they foresee and control, they may not be able to escape a rear-end collision or being hit broadside by a careless driver of an older vehicle that ran a red light.

Car Manufacturing

Companies attempting to enter the automotive space under the vague assumption that the technical skills and product development experience they need is mostly in software development are going to face some monumental hurdles. Volume car manufacturing, supply chain management, and systems integration are hugely complex, as some new automakers are learning the hard way.

And it isn’t only a matter of managing to manufacture cars globally in large volumes. In fact, revenue growth from one-time vehicle sales and aftermarket parts is going to slow down, and more growth will be in recurring revenues from new services. Here, innovation and growth will come from a complex ecosystem of car-centric content and services, not onboard software functionality.

Vehicle-Centered Innovation

Imagining innovation in automotive by thinking about cars as computers on wheels is limiting. New opportunities will emerge from the interplay between personal cars, shared mobility, and public transit. They will come from new mobility services and customer engagement models enabled by a dynamic ecosystem that includes, in addition to personal cars, different mobility options and a range of content and information service providers.

While connected vehicles and consumers offer many new opportunities, in the near term, carmakers will continue to have major influence on innovation and technology adoption.  Car companies will continue to own the design and manufacturing of vehicle platforms, and manage global manufacturing supply chain. And they are the ultimate responsible party for regulatory compliance and possible liabilities. It should not come as a surprise that changes in the automotive industry often occur at a much slower pace than the newcomers from the software industry are accustomed to.


Image: Saint El Camino: Our Lady of Internal Combustion (David Stephens, 2013)
Photo © Joe Barkai