The automotive industry has long been seen as a laggard in terms of technological progress. Compliance with safety regulations and the capital intensive nature of R&D and production means that innovation cannot be as rapid as in the IT industry, for instance. However, the changes that make it through are rock solid, so cars have steadily become more refined and reliable. The average age of a car on American roads today is over 11 years — the highest it has ever been.

Today, though, we are on the cusp of the biggest revolution in the automotive industry since the time Ford created the Model T.

Over the past few years, with the push towards green technology, smart driving aids, and even autonomous mobility, cars are on the way to becoming powerful data-intensive machines like your smartphone.

With each self-driving car expected to generate 2 petabytes of data every year, every aspect of how we own, drive, and service our vehicles will undergo a massive transformation through data.

automotive industry

Canvassing the Automotive Industry

Most customers begin their search for their new vehicle online. The search patterns generated by their queries can help manufacturers gain valuable insights into what people are looking for. This lets manufacturers formulate their strategic and tactical moves accordingly, rather than using a trial-and-error approach that could be very costly. With a ton of data at manufacturers’ disposal today, market research will never be the same.

For product development decisions where trade-offs are involved, manufacturers in the automotive industry sometimes monitor social media chatter to get a sense of which options might be viewed more favourably and direct their efforts accordingly. This helps the manufacturers design their vehicles to suit the target segment, right from the ground up. Features that have been introduced using this approach have almost always received a tremendous response. After all, everybody likes to know that they’re being heard.

Optimizing Sales and Servicing

Large automobile companies with a vast network of dealerships have been using location analytics to optimize their presence. Cars today come with a plethora of sensors that capture a great deal of information about how the vehicles have been used. This also helps the automotive industry tailor its marketing and distribution strategy to put the right type and number of units at the right places. Understanding existing and potential customers also enables these companies to invest more precisely in advertisements.

The impact of data collection and processing has been even more significant on the after-sales servicing ecosystem. Manufacturers and dealerships are now able to pre-empt the requirements and manage their inventory and supply chain accordingly, rather than waiting for their customers to report a failure. Some of the high end cars, for instance, have sensors fitted to key components to check for performance parameters. By keeping tab on the health of the parts and making projections based on the historical usage, the sensor sends an alert to the manufacturer directly when a component is nearing failure and needs replacement. The part is manufactured on call, dispatched to the dealership, and the customer receives a phone call to come in for their replacement even before they know that something could have gone wrong. With Internet of Things slated to come up in a big way, we are going to see more of this magic in the years ahead.

Driving Aids for Better Efficiency and Performance

Keeping aside the unfortunate cheating device fiasco at the Volkswagen Group – an incident that is more of an exception than a general trend — software trickery has been an increasingly important part of the automotive industry. Clever use of software has made the cars much better than what pure mechanics could have achieved.

With a plethora of sensors that gather data from every inch of the vehicle, GPS connectivity, and the processing capability to rival the best of computers, the cars of today can make even the most modest of us feel like a driving God.

They make life much easier by correcting our mistakes seamlessly, keeping us in the lane on expressways, and taking care of the monotonous, distasteful aspects of driving in traffic while we enjoy the comforts of the in-car entertainment systems.

The software support isn’t just limited to anticipating trouble and keeping you safe. The new Ferrari 488 has a feature that lets you drift better, the Jaguar XF has an artificially enhanced soundtrack to give the engine a mesmerizing roar worthy of a Jaguar, and the Rolls Royce always seems to know what gear to take on the road ahead even before the car gets there, thanks to its “satellite aided transmission.” These are exciting times for car enthusiasts.

Self-Driving Vehicles

Since vehicles have already developed the ability to capture and process a vast amount of data and make logical inferences in real time. The natural progression in the automotive industry from here is complete autonomy.

Tesla has led the way so far with its Autopilot software update that enables the car to steer within a lane, change lanes with the tap of an indicator, and maintain traffic-aware cruise control. It also takes control of the brakes to help avoid potential front- and side-on collisions. Equipped with 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors that scan an area of 16 feet around the car, a forward-looking camera, electronic brakes, and a forward radar, the system currently works best in dense, slow-moving traffic. Drivers are still encouraged to have their hands on the wheel.

The entire Tesla fleet will be feeding the data from autonomous driving to a central server to process the information and use it to become better over time.

Elon Musk says that within three years we could have a fully autonomous Tesla on the roads.

Apart from Tesla, Apple, Google, and Faraday Future, the mainstream marques like Mercedes, Audi, and BMW have also trialled self-driving technology recently. Mercedes, with its F015 concept, envisions a future where cars will be like mobile homes — making the daily commute through crowded cities a pleasant activity where passengers can have the freedom to use their time constructively for work or leisure.

That said, there are some very big questions that still hover over these new developments in autonomous driving. Who is responsible if an automated car crashes? Can a vehicle ever really make ethical choices if an accident is unavoidable? Will the legislators ever get their act together to create the necessary legal framework? These are difficult questions and answers will need to be worked out before self-driving goes mainstream in the automotive industry. When that happens, the vast amount of data that these cars generate will also need a long, hard look.

Data Security and Privacy

Many cars on the roads today include wireless technology that could be vulnerable to hacking or privacy intrusions. The cars collect and transmit tons of data back to the manufacturers who use it for improving customer experience. GPS location, seatbelt usage, navigation-related data, and a whole host of information on other driving components — that’s a lot of very personal information that could be misused if it falls into the wrong hands. While some basic security measures have been implemented, the fact remains that transmitting data always poses a risk.

According to a report by Senator Edward J. Markey titled ‘Tracking & Hacking: Security & Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers at Risk’, most automobile manufacturers could not provide a satisfactory answer as to how they secure this data during transmission. “Drivers have come to rely on these new technologies, but unfortunately the automakers haven’t done their part to protect us from cyber-attacks or privacy invasions. Even as we are more connected than ever in our cars and trucks, our technology systems and data security remain largely unprotected.”

Senator Markey posed his questions after studies showed how hackers can get into the controls of some popular vehicles, causing them to suddenly accelerate, turn, kill the brakes, activate the horn, control the headlights, and modify the speedometer and gas gauge readings. Additional concerns came from the rise of navigation and other features that record and send location or driving history information. One of the reasons why data security in the automotive industry isn’t as robust as we would like it to be is that automakers’ security measures are purely voluntary at this point. Regulations haven’t caught up with the possible risks that such technologies can pose.

Data can do wonders for the automotive industry. However, as cars become an increasing contributor to our data footprint, a lot of thought must go into securing this data and using it responsibly.