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Putting the User Back in the Driver’s Seat: Thoughts from Rutberg Global Summit 2014

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What if the most disruptive technological device of the next decade is already a century old?

This was the topic of conversation over a dinner at the Rutberg Executive Summit last week, where I was invited to offer up my predictions for the new mobile-centric world. After the conference finished, GM hosted leaders and strategic thinkers from a wide variety of companies – including AT&T, Microsoft, PayPal, Yahoo!, MasterCard and Clear Channel – to discuss the evening’s topic: “How a Car Can Become a Platform in the Age of the Internet of Things.”

The conversation investigated how the automotive industry can take advantage of our increasingly connected world to build better cars. It was eye-opening (ear-opening?) to hear Phil Abram, the Chief Infotainment Officer of GM, speak convincingly about his vision for the personal vehicle becoming a central player in the Internet of Things.

And if that sounds far-fetched, it’s probably because you’ve driven a car recently. Let’s face it: today’s machines are a far cry from “smart” or “connected.” Google Maps, for instance, is much faster and more accurate than most in-car navigation systems today. And while our own most recent Mobile Trends survey shows developers are optimistic about things like iOS7 in the Car, we have a long way to go before cars can communicate seamlessly with the rest of the technology in our lives.

Big Opportunity, Big Reward

That said, the opportunity for GM and other manufacturers to transform the car into an open, data-driven platform is a pretty powerful one. Of course, for cars to reach their full potential as connected devices, manufacturers have got to embrace the ecosystem, break down barriers and collaborate with other companies. That means converting cars from individual, static technology “islands” into connected platforms that others can build on, incorporating data and software from outside sources to finally put the user in the driver’s seat. (Yes, the pun is intentional.)

If we’re successful, the possibilities are jawdropping. Appcelerator customer (and investor) PayPal envisions a future where payments will be verified while you’re waiting in line at the drive-through, sans cash or credit card. Or better yet, you might even be able to order ahead so it’s ready to go when you arrive, saving time on your commute. The Weather Channel, meanwhile, theorized that data collected from a windshield could be used to advise drivers in inclement weather and improve forecast accuracy. Someday cars could even talk to each other, avoiding collisions and taking human error out of the traffic safety equation.

Seeing an automotive titan like GM recognize this as the inevitable evolution of their industry was absolutely refreshing. Perhaps most importantly, however, in bringing together a diverse array of organizations from many industries, GM acknowledged that no single company can build the high-tech car of the future alone. We need innovators who can work together on an open platform to invent and iterate new features that can be added (before and after market) to make cars better, safer and more fun to drive.

Collaborating With the Competition

Whether we’re talking automotives, consumer packaged goods, retail or any other industry, the old proprietary and siloed mentality around research and development will only stymie us going forward. As GigaOm noted this week, the transition to mobile has required companies to become frenemies; the Internet of Things will only make that worse (or better, depending on your perspective). The good news is that long-time rivals are already seeing that sharing data among themselves offers all sorts of advantages to their customers. In the auto industry, that means manufacturers will need to open their data and APIs and share it with one another in order for driverless cars to communicate with one another on the road.

GM, for one, is already looking ahead to this new reality. Bringing together stakeholders across industries is a strong first step towards building a real innovation exchange of ideas and information. This renewed emphasis on collaboration, limitless possibilities and user experience are essential to continuing to transform our idea of what a “car” can be – and increasing the value it delivers to those behind the wheel.

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