Road Ahead

Virtual Backseat Driver May Ride Along With Your Next Vehicle

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Cars in a not-too-distant tomorrow will be able to tell the driver – and maybe others – how well he is performing behind the wheel.

How’s your driving?

Soon you won’t need to ask; the car will let you know all by itself.

That’s a future just two or three years away, Karthikeyan Natarajan, who heads up the Integrated Engineering Solutions Practice for software and systems developer Mahindra Satyam, says in a phone interview from India.

Last year, Mahindra Satyam began shopping around what it calls its “Connected Vehicle Concept,” a modular infotainment and telematics platform that would allow manufacturers to offer a wide array of features and services at price points designed to fit a range of vehicles from entry level to top of the line.

The system is drawing interest, Natarajan contends, beginning with auto makers in China and India, who see among the opportunities a chance to include software that would monitor driving behavior and feed the information back to buyers and, possibly, their vehicle’s insurers.

One auto maker already has started down this path, he says, and is looking to develop a system that can collect data on vehicle speeds and the driver’s steering and braking techniques.

The information would be gathered by the OE as research into how their cars are being used in the real world, but it also could be fed back to the driver via dashboard readouts, computer programs and smartphone apps.

Think of it as a virtual backseat driver, armed with graphs and statistics to help make you better behind the wheel.

It might not go over well in the U.S., where privacy advocates would howl, but that information also could be provided to insurance companies to determine rates, Natarajan says.

Some U.S. insurers already are experimenting with portable systems, such as Progressive’s “Snapshot” device that tracks how far and what hours the car is driven and whether the driver is slamming on the brakes. But customers must opt-in to the service in exchange for potentially lower fees.

In China and India, insurers base annual fees solely on distances traveled, the Mahindra Satyam executive says. Having actual performance information would allow them to offer discounts to more conservative drivers or charge more aggressive vehicle owners higher fees.

“Now infotainment isn’t just infotainment,” the executive says. “It is becoming more of a vehicle-information system.”

Although initial interest is emanating from Asia, the supplier is planning to take the concept to its customers in Europe, as well.

“We see it coming to all vehicles,” Natarajan says of the Connected Vehicle Concept building blocks. “But what they do with it…we see each (auto maker) wanting to have their own unique (product) based on trends and interests in the local markets.

“They will get into this, where they capture all the (driving) information and display it,” he adds. “That is going to be the future.”

To avoid contributing to driver distraction, most of this information won’t be accessible while the car is in motion.

Still to be determined is how to turn a profit on such a feature.

“The OEs are thinking about how they can really monetize this,” Natarajan says. “(But) I think in the first year or two, they’ll just let drivers know how good they are driving.”

No doubt some of us won’t like what we see.

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Drew Winter

Drew Winter is Editor-in-Chief of WardsAuto World magazine and a Senior Editor at WardsAuto.com. He was won numerous awards for his work in both print and digital media and has been...

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Tom Murphy is executive editor of WardsAuto World magazine, with an emphasis on technology and suppliers. He leads selection of the Ward’s 10 Best Engines and Ward’s 10 Best Interiors...
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