Like it or not, the world has placed a collective big bet on wearable technology. Google, Intel, Facebook and others have all acquired several promising startups in the field. Amazon recently launched the first mass-market “wearables” store category. And although it’s at the peak of its hype cycle, market researchers expect wearables to grow by nearly 80% to more than 110 million units sold annually by 2018.
Given how quickly wearables have gone mainstream, several automakers and dealerships have begun pilot programs to improve operations and enhance the driving experience. These include virtual test drives with Oculus Rift and specialized interfaces powered by Google Glass and Epson Moverio.
More specifically, Mercedes, BMW, Tesla, Nissan and Hyundai have built proprietary smartwatch applications for Pebble and Apple to monitor speed, fuel efficiency and even the driver’s heart rate to detect fatigue. While these pilot programs demonstrate great promise, the only semi-successful applications so far remain basic fitness trackers from Fitbit and Jawbone. Even poster-child Google Glass has been put on hiatus.
What should the automotive industry do? As when driving in uncertain weather, we recommend reducing your speed when it comes to embracing wearable technology. But that doesn’t mean coming to a complete stop. The error prevention, efficiency, automation and safety benefits of wearable technology for manufacturing, selling and operating automobiles are far too great to ignore.
Whatever the eventual reality, wearables will likely transform the way we interact with our cars. In addition to features such as remote access, auto-summoning, navigation, vehicle service and notifications, there are several possibilities from a health and safety standpoint.
The biometric information that can be found in the metadata that exists around drivers (what we call their Code Halo™), for example, could be used with onboard diagnostics to reduce accidents. In precarious driving situations, phone calls and messages could be blocked or fielded with an automated response without disturbing the driver. Further, vehicles could detect impaired, drowsy or otherwise ill drivers, pull over to a safe place and summon help before an accident occurs.
We developed a prototype called Tasuke (which means “help” in Japanese) that demonstrates how biometric information from the driver’s Code Halo can be combined with onboard diagnostics to improve the driving experience. For instance, data on the driver’s heart rate from his smartwatch can be checked against information on the speed, acceleration and maneuvering of the car to gauge the driver’s stress level. If the stress level seems high, soothing music could be played, or in extreme cases, more immediate action could be triggered.
While eyeglass- and watch-style wearables are currently the most common form factor, a preferred type of wearables has yet to be determined. Manufacturers are experimenting with smart bands, contact lenses, rings and more. From a control standpoint, biometric data (using smart bands such as Nymi™) can be used to replace current “smart keys,” storing a driver’s vehicle preferences, locking and unlocking the vehicle and starting the vehicle when an authenticated driver is detected nearby.
A combination of all these devices could eventually reduce driver reliance on smartphones and dashboard electronics, with intelligent software determining the best way to send notifications, based on driver preference, road conditions and other critical situations.
In addition to enhancing the driving experience, wearable technology could also improve the production, sale and maintenance of cars. As part of the WearIT@work project, research on personnel training and quality inspections were conducted at one of Skoda’s production facilities. After thorough review, wearable-based prototypes were credited for improving overall quality, especially in the areas of verification, hands-free inspection, better access to supporting information and tighter collaboration among workers.
These are just a few encouraging applications of wearable automotive technology. Whether they become reality depends on the following:
Overcoming Adoption Challenges
As previously implied, the only thing stopping wearables is the technology itself. For instance, short battery life is a key issue that limits utility and effectiveness.. These limitations constrain the display, communication and processing capabilities of wearables. Several device manufacturers are exploring the use of solar or kinetic motion to overcome these issues, but a winning formula has yet to be developed.
Large volumes of data are also a concern. As wearable devices combine with the burgeoning Internet of Things to produce and trigger even more information, organizations will be forced to understand and invest even more in SMAC Stack infrastructures, particularly analytics.
Manufacturers and dealers must consider regulatory and integration issues, as well. For safety reasons, regulatory authorities in the U.S. and UK have prohibited the use of “smart glasses” while driving. Further, a common language between wearables has yet to be accepted, making it difficult for varying devices to communicate with one another, not to mention the connecting software.
The biggest challenge, however, is behaviorally based. It took several years, for instance, for the majority of smartphone users to switch from physical to virtual keyboards. Imagine, then, how difficult it might be to understand, adopt and benefit from a varying number of wearable devices.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. But it will take design thinking, small-scale piloting and spirited collaboration before wearable technology becomes as ubiquitous to auto manufacturers and the world in general as smartphones did before them.