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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

More car makers need to make vehicles upgradeable on the fly

BMW looks to be at least one of the manufacturers that understands the new paradigm

A BMW i8 plug-in hybrid. The German company seems to have a handle on the need for the car to be regarded as a tech device. Andreas Arnold/Bloomberg
A BMW i8 plug-in hybrid. The German company seems to have a handle on the need for the car to be regarded as a tech device. Andreas Arnold/Bloomberg

My first car, an old Toyota Corolla, was about as low-tech as you could get.

You had to roll down the windows manually and, horror of horrors, there was no way to connect a phone to the stereo.

I was pretty happy last year when, after a decade in that old jalopy, I traded up to a brand new Subaru Forester. It had all the features you’d expect in a modern vehicle: back-up camera, touch-screen dashboard, satellite radio and, thankfully, power windows.

That last one isn’t exactly considered modern anymore, but I was ecstatic nevertheless to finally have a car that fit more in this century than the last.

However, at just over a year later, I’m feeling some of that old dissatisfaction again. I’m discovering new frustrations in what my new-ish Subaru is lacking, or with the flaws in its existing features.

The car’s Bluetooth capability is particularly maddening. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it connects calls from my phone, but not music, sometimes it’s the opposite.

There’s no apparent fix for this. I’ve asked the dealership if there’s anything to be done, but no luck. They tell me it’s just something the manufacturer is working to improve in future models.

That just doesn’t cut it anymore. If it were virtually any other electronics item, the issue would likely be resolved within days. A quick over-the-air software update and boom, the Bluetooth would be fixed, maybe with a few new features added in as an extra bonus.

Some car makers are evidently understanding this new reality better than others – that cars are rapidly becoming gadgets and that consumers, like me, are expecting the same rapid iteration from them as they’re getting with smartphones, tablets and so on.

In developed economies, luxury car manufacturers are leading the way. BMW, in particular, is rapidly transforming its vehicles into regularly updating devices, to the point where they’re basically becoming smartphones on wheels.

The German car maker last year introduced its Connected app, which added several remote-control functions to certain models. Drivers could lock and unlock their vehicles through a smartphone app, as well as control the air conditioning and heating system. It’s a handy feature for warming up or cooling down the car before getting into it.

The company is now rolling out its Connected+ app across 19 countries, which will add a number of new functions to models running on newer versions of its iDrive operating system.

Drivers will get to ability to share their location and trip status with others in real time and be able to send directions directly from their phone to the car.

Most impressively, the app will also let drivers remotely see their car’s surroundings by using its cameras to build a three-dimensional view around it. It’s going to be a good way for owners to keep tabs on their vehicles, especially when parking in a dodgy neighbourhood.

More features are coming, and fast, according to BMW. The company has three research labs – in Munich, Chicago and Shanghai – working on additional capabilities. An engineer at the Chicago lab recently told me his team is capable of adding new functions every two weeks.

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BMW looks to be at least one of the manufacturers that understands the new paradigm, where the old five to seven-year design cycle is no longer acceptable. “The thinking has been that when the car leaves the factory it's done,” Dieter May, the company’s senior vice-president of digital services and business models, told me. “No, that's when it starts to live.”

BMW’s main competitors, Audi and Mercedes, also have apps that allow for remote locking and temperature control, and they’re under pressure to keep adding features and capabilities. It’s a safe bet that continually updating cars will be the luxury market’s new arms race.

The trend is starting to migrate down market too. U.S. manufacturer General Motors is adding similar functionalities to its cars via its OnStar system. Meanwhile, SAIC Motor – China’s biggest auto maker – last year unveiled an “internet car” packed with a number of remote-control functions.

Wireless capability is key to all of this, with the number of connected cars expected to hit 37.7 million by 2022, a big jump from 5.1 million in 2015, according to analysis firm Research and Markets.

But cars don’t necessarily have to have their own cellular connections to benefit. In many cases, drivers could simply download updates onto USB keys and plug them into a properly designed operating system.

What I wouldn’t give for that to be the case with my car’s lousy Bluetooth.

Winner of the Week: Google Chrome. Google’s web browser will soon have the ability to block web pages from automatically playing sound, a welcome addition given the plethora of sites that launch videos as soon as a visitor lands on them.

Loser of the Week: Uber. Downward momentum for the company is becoming more apparent, with reports suggesting it is pursuing cost-cutting measures. The Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, meanwhile, is reportedly making a big investment in Go-Jek, Uber’s main rival in South East Asia.