It’s time for upgradable cars: O’Donnell – USA TODAY
FOSTER CITY, Calif. — Consumers have spoken.
The record-breaking pre-orders for Tesla’s newly unveiled Model 3 car can, and probably should, be interpreted a number of different ways by the automobile and related industries. Obviously, it’s a strong testament to the interest that car buyers have in electric cars, particularly those with sleek designs at affordable prices.
But there are several other aspects of Tesla’s new cars that consumers are likely interested in as well.
Most importantly, Tesla is one of the only automakers that offers over-the-air software updates to their cars. The company takes the approach that their car’s software is never done (much like our mobile phones) and offers regular upgrades not only to traditional infotainment features — such as clock apps and climate controls — but also to driving performance and automation functions.
Traditional auto vendors, on the other hand, have shied away from offering regular software updates for their cars, a problem likely exacerbated by widely reported auto hacking exploits.
While security-based concerns are legitimate, Tesla and vendors of other smart devices in various consumer industries have shown that it is possible to architect connected cars and other devices that are safe. Plus, the simple truth is, once any aspect of a car becomes connected, a risk exists, and it’s not likely that the auto industry is going to go backwards by ripping out all digitally-enabled car components. In other words, there’s no looking back.
As a result, while the ultra-conservative approach to upgrades taken by most car vendors wasn’t necessarily an issue in the past, it’s quickly becoming not only unattractive, but downright untenable.
Today’s cars are sophisticated computing devices with powerful computing hardware and increasingly feature-rich software. Exactly the type of devices that need the ability to be upgraded.
Tesla’s most affordable option, the highly anticipated Model 3, can do 0-60 in under 6 seconds and get at least 215 miles per charge.
While most consumers would likely be content with software feature updates — even if they were just to the infotainment and basic car control functions — there’s no reason car makers couldn’t even offer some type of hardware upgrades.
Many of the core computing components and circuit boards currently being used inside modern cars were, in fact, specifically designed to be upgradable. However, most car vendors have simply chosen not to leverage that capability to date. Vehicle components have historically been designed to be modular, but auto OEMs have not been comfortable with the idea of swapping modules at the dealership.
This is unfortunate for many reasons now, but the frustrations about it will likely grow over time. Remember that the average age of US,. cars is roughly 11 years old, which means their useful lifetime is even longer. When’s the last time you tried to use an 11-year old PC?
Never, more than likely. And that should be the case with cars as well.
Besides, the auto industry has a long, proud history of people embellishing and “upgrading” the critical components of their cars — whether that’s modifying engines and exhaust systems, buying new radios or even hanging fuzzy dice from their rear-view mirrors. Now that the digital components of today’s cars have become some of the most compelling reasons for purchasing a given model, it just makes sense that automakers should offer the ability to upgrade them.
Even better, there’s likely a good business opportunity for car makers and car dealers to offer these upgrades. Even casual reading across various car enthusiast sites shows that there’s a lot of pent-up demand for upgrading electronics inside people’s cars.
But even without hardware upgrades, automakers could engender a great deal of value, appreciation and brand loyalty from their customers (as well as the possibility of some revenue) by offering software upgrades that help make people’s existing car purchases feel “new” again.
The recent connected car demo that BMW showed at Microsoft’s recent Build conference, for example, where they showed tighter integration between the car’s displays and the information from your various smart devices, was a very compelling example of the kind of software upgrades many current cars could benefit from.
To be fair, building the infrastructure necessary to deliver these kinds of upgrades is not trivial for automakers and many of them likely are working on these capabilities. But if they really want to address the needs and interests of today’s auto-buying customers, they need to overcome their traditionally conservative approach to this process and accelerate these plans forward.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms that include Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Nvidia. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech