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The next major mobile platform will come with an engine and windshield wipers

First came the laptop, then the smartphone and then the tablet: Now, there is mounting evidence that the next major mobile platform will be one with an engine and windshield wipers.

Connected-car technologies are evolving at a rapid rate, transforming auto manufacturers into technology giants, revolutionizing the driving experience and inching toward a future of autonomous vehicles. These innovations can already be found in showrooms and driveways across the country, though a majority of Canadians don't yet have access to them.

"Auto makers are realizing that their future is going to obviously lie in building vehicles, but a lot of the value and business benefits that they're going to realize isn't necessarily going to be in metal bending, it's going to be in the services they can provide on that platform in the vehicle," said Grant Courville, senior director of product management for QNX Software Systems, the company behind Blackberry's operating system. "That's why we're seeing a lot of non-traditional automotive companies working with ourselves and others, to see how they can add value to the car."

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Every major car manufacturer has at least announced their intentions to add connected-car capabilities to their newest models. That is because 28 per cent of new-car buyers rank connectivity features as a top priority, ahead of engine power and fuel efficiency, according to a study by McKinsey.

Another study, by MaRS Discovery District, suggests that these early automotive technologies are paving the way for a smart-transportation revolution.

"We found that there are really two main drivers for this technology, which is the increased safety you can get from technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, for example, and also just a better driver experience; having infotainment systems, which allow you to use your cellphone while driving," said Emily Nicoll, a market research analyst for MaRS cleantech and physical sciences, and co-author of the study.

Platforms such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay allow drivers to use smartphone applications in a manner that is optimized for the in-car experience, providing voice-activated controls, navigation, music and other features while utilizing in-car hardware such as dashboard displays, microphones and speakers. A survey conducted by IDC Canada found that 51 per cent of Android users, 33 per cent of Blackberry users, 37 per cent of Windows phone users and 60 per cent of iPhone users are interested in or are already using these features.

But smartphone-based infotainment is only the tip of the connected-car iceberg, and many other features are of interest to Canadian drivers, though they remain largely inaccessible.

Only 22 per cent of respondents are utilizing GPS, map and traffic applications in their dashboard displays, while another 49 per cent are interested in these features. Only 24 per cent are able to start their car, sound the alarm or lock their doors using their smartphone, though another 33 per cent want to use their smartphone as a remote for their car, and only 6 per cent have a WiFi hot spot in their car, though another 43 per cent want the technology, according to the IDC report.

"We're at the phase where, in most cases, you're looking at a tiny subset of the market that has already acquired it, but we see the majority of Canadian consumers being interested in buying into it," said Nigel Wallis, IDC Canada's research director for vertical markets and new initiatives.

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The divide between those who want the technology and those who already have it, Wallis says, largely splits along demographic lines.

"I had assumed the adoption would be driven by younger car owners and buyers, people who love tech, live on their phones and have a new digital-native culture around them," he said. "The cars that are being launched that are the earliest adopters of these infotainment services tend to be the high-end models, so the push-to-market is opposite from the pull-from-market."

IDC's study found that 27 per cent of men over 65 have access to at least one connected-car technology, compared with about 15 per cent in nearly every other demographic. While many of the connected-car features available on the market are beyond the reach of younger consumers, Wallis says that will change in time.

"One thing to remember is that cars stick around for a long time," he said. "In Canada, there are 23 million motor vehicles, on average, though there are under two million new motor vehicles sold per year, so there's a lag factor."

The connected-car features available to Canadian consumers, however, seem primitive when compared to those in development. BMW, for example, unveiled the iVision Future Interaction at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, which takes automotive connectivity to a whole new level.

The concept car, which won't become available until the early 2020s, includes a 21-inch 3-D display and AirTouch controls that lets users interact with the car using hand gestures. The concept car also comes programmed with three distinct driving modes, which change the interior of the car based on its level of automated driving.

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"It's meant to give a glimpse into the future of mobility, and how the driver and vehicle will interact with each other," said Shawn Stephens, manager of after-sales systems and innovation for BMW Group Canada. "You're going to see the vehicle be an extension of the consumer's digital ecosystem. They're going to expect news updates, live information and things like that. As we move towards automated driving, it's going to redefine the interior space of the vehicle."

Though a majority of Canadians have yet to experience connected-car features in their own vehicles, the next new car they purchase will undoubtedly provide a glimpse into a future where cars are just another mobile-technology platform.

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