Connecting the Unconnected Car

About one third of US adults want connected car features. However, in 2015, only about 5.3% bought a new car, and the average age of cars on the road in the US is 11.4 years old. That leaves a lot of people who want smart cars that are stuck with dumb ones. Besides tacking smartphones to the dashboard (which pretty much all of us do) is there anything that can be done to "connect" the unconnected car?

Luckily for the technologically inclined owners of less than technologically advanced cars, there are already many ways to smarten them up. The automotive aftermarket frequently comes to the rescue of cars that are not fast enough, comfy enough or cool enough. It's $250 billion-plus business, and they are not resting on a pile of floor mats and new car-scented trees as the opportunity to connect otherwise unconnected cars passes them by.

Can an unconnected car really be connected?
Today's cars -- even the 11.4 year old ones -- are complicated machines. Systems from ignition to interior lights are integrated and computer controlled. Taking the dashboard out of a newer car can take days and involve hundreds of pieces of hardware (I know, I've done it!) and the thought of getting back there to add anything to it would challenge the mettle of even the most experienced shadetree mechanic. Luckily, tapping into the brains of most cars is a lot less complicated than that.

Thanks to standardized onboard diagnostic systems (currently OBDII), every car made for most major markets after 1996 has the same exact diagnostic port and speaks a standardized language. What the aftermarket has figured out is that OBDII can be used not only for diagnostics, but to access vehicle systems and much of the information that they produce. The plug is easily accessible (look for it on the bottom left side of your dash) allowing even those with limited knowledge of screwdrivers to plug a "smart" device into their car.

What connected car retrofits are available?
Connected car retrofit features run the gamut from insurance to performance enhancements. It would be impossible to cover them all here, but here's a few emergent categories:

  • Safety: Roadside assistance at the push of a button was pioneered by General Motors and OnStar. It can do everything from remotely unlock your car to hailing emergency assistance automatically if you're in an accident. OnStar no longer offers an aftermarket solution, but there are plenty of others available from wireless providers like Verizon's Hum.

  • Connectivity: Getting WiFi access in your car is as easy as bringing any hotspot into the car and subscribing to the LTE service that connects it. Many connected car devices also double as WiFi hotspots, like the Automatic Connected Car Adapter that comes with 3G access.

  • Infotainment: Does your "infotainment" consist of a broken CD player and playing Eye-Spy? There is hope. Aftermarket infotainment systems are available that bolt in place of your factory stereo system. Some like Pioneer Car Play give you all the maps, apps and ability to make hands-free calls, as well as compatibility with Apple CarPlay, which puts all the features of your iPhone on a larger display.

  • Telematics-based devices and services: There are many different ways that telematics are being used for aftermarket in-car services. The state of Oregon and Verizon Telematics teamed up to create the mileage-based OReGO program, which created a new way to fund road maintenance, preservation and improvements. These are usually funded by fuel taxes, but in the age of electric vehicles, they had to come up with a fairer way for everyone to pay. The OReGO device plugs into the OBDII port, tracks your mileage and reports it for billing when you are in range of an open WiFi connection. Insurance companies are also offering insurance plans that use an OBDII device to track your driving habits -- steering, braking, throttle inputs and speed -- and they can offer you a lower price if you drive carefully. Have a lead foot? Maybe skip that one.

  • All-in-One Connected Car Devices: OBDII connected devices like Verizon Hum, AT&T Car Connection and others do everything including provide vehicle diagnostics, push-button roadside assistance, automatic accident reporting, tracking driving habits, limiting vehicle and phone functions (to keep your teenage drivers safe) and remote locking and starting. Most of the features are controlled by your smartphone or an in-car module and the devices double as a WiFi hotspot.

    What's the monetization opportunity?
    Due to both the long life span of vehicles and the extensive amount of time it takes any OEM to go from concept to manufacture, the aftermarket is inherently positioned to profit from retrofitting cars with the latest tech. They have not nearly met the demands of the market yet, but they are early to the game in monetizing services.

    Connected car device suppliers -- especially mobile operators that are looking for new revenue streams -- already seem to realize that just making the hardware is not going to be enough. Subscription- and usage-based services will generate more recurring revenue, which can be further bolstered with secondary data stream monetization.

    Data streams can be used for secondary sales of additional goods and services offered to the consumer directly (e.g., personalized discounted insurance promotions) or capturing and selling the data to third parties can also generate additional revenue opportunities.

    The automotive aftermarket has largely dealt in one-time sales, so their existing business system infrastructure may not be able to support new offering models like recurring revenue, and it will require expensive and time-consuming development resources in order to institute anything new.

    More modern (usually cloud-based) billing systems can offer a faster, less expensive solution that allows shorter implementation timelines than their legacy or home-grown systems.

    What's next?
    It's estimated that by 2020, 90% of new vehicles with come with built-in connectivity. But that's still not 100%. Not to mention that the long development and lifecycle of cars means that there will be plenty more room for the automotive aftermarket to provide connected car solutions. And of course, today's cars will be haunting the road in all their unconnected glory for at least another decade.

    The market for connected car solutions is expected to exceed $350 million in 2017, and will continue to grow. This means cooler features for tech-savvy drivers and more opportunities for innovative automotive aftermarket suppliers. It's a win-win for everyone.

    — Brendan O'Brien, Co-Founder, Aria Systems Inc.

  • kq4ym 9/12/2016 | 12:41:37 PM
    Re: Connected cars I'm a bit skeptical about retrofitting older cars, at least those from 1996 on, with accessories to make them more "connected." The cost of the newer technology would if compared to the optional accessories costs in new cars, seem exceedingly huge compared to the value of a 10 to 20 year old vehicle. But, if there's something that's cheap enough maybe it would sell to those older car owners. 
    Joe Stanganelli 9/3/2016 | 4:52:02 PM
    Re: Connected cars Ah, I gotcha now.

    For my own part, I prefer to rely on radio and CDs... Then there's no chance of me having to fiddle for the phone or whatever to thumbs-down something on Pandora.  ;)
    Kelsey Ziser 9/2/2016 | 9:11:02 AM
    Re: Connected cars I was thinking more for using the GPS and streaming music. 
    Joe Stanganelli 9/2/2016 | 8:36:53 AM
    Re: Connected cars > I would love a WiFi hotspot in my car for road trips!

    Really?  To me, that defeats the point of a road trip with someone else -- talking, etc.  (Unless you're road-tripping with people you hate -- but, then, why do that to yourself to begin with?)  ;)

    Unless you're talking about a solo road trip, of course; very handy to have assured Internet access along the way for stops and GPS.

    Personally, though, I never get close to my data limit.  (Of course, unlike many others, I'm not much for 4G streaming.)
    Kelsey Ziser 9/1/2016 | 11:22:03 AM
    Re: Connected cars I certainly fit in the rinky-dink CD player category with a 20-year-old vehicle. 

    The subscription model makes a lot of sense and I agree, that's probably where they would get most of their revenue in these upfits. I suppose that's why they often include a SyriusXM trial subscription in a lot of new vehicles.

    I would love a WiFi hotspot in my car for road trips! 
    Joe Stanganelli 8/30/2016 | 9:52:29 PM
    Connected cars Good piece, Brendan.

    The reasons you cite are why AT&T, for instance, has made vehicle solutions their #1 priority in terms of both present investment as well as strategy in planning for the future (and why it's #1 in demand right now for the telco).  An executive I recently spoke with at AT&T told me that they are connecting about a million cars every quarter.  That's a LOT of new connected cars!

    As for my own part, I'll stick with my old, unconnected car -- but I realize that my personal Luddism might not speak for the world.  ;)

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