Like virtually every other industry in the world, the automotive sector has been profoundly affected by the explosion of smart devices. Today, smartphones let millions of people enjoy the convenience of ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft or car-sharing services like Zipcar or car2go. Smartphones can also extend the capabilities of the car itself with over-the-air updates, customization, internet connectivity and more. And in the not-too-distant future, when self-driving cars are shared between multiple users, smart devices will carry the user’s identity from vehicle to vehicle, a

llowing for instant personalization.

Personal Smart Devices – The User’s Identity

Multiple studies have shown that car ownership as we define it today is likely to undergo a significant generational shift away from individuals exclusively buying and driving their own vehicles toward a more collaborative, autonomous driving model. Fewer young adults have driver’s licenses than ever before, and a recent survey from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) shows that younger Americans are less interested in car ownership than their older siblings, parents and grandparents. Because millennials tend to prefer urban living and online socializing, they have a reduced need for car ownership. As a result, they either use alternative methods of transportation (public transport, bikes, waking, etc.) or turn to car or ride sharing.

As a consequence of these changes, cars themselves are becoming less and less personal. Even so, when a consumer drives a shared vehicle they still want a customized experience – seat adjustment, mirror adjustment, air-conditioning settings, favorite music, etc.

Ultimate Personalization Device

An individual’s entire identity is contained in a smartphone; there is no more “personalized” device anywhere, and that makes it the perfect conduit to carry the user’s identity from vehicle to vehicle.  Innovative new technologies have recently hit the market that make it easier for automakers and suppliers to connect the smartphone to the vehicle infotainment system (via USB or wirelessly). This would allow the user to transfer personal preferences from vehicle to vehicle, ensuring their seat is always adjusted, the side-view mirror is at an ideal angle, and the radio is playing their favorite station.

Security issues

Securing personal information is one of the biggest challenges in integrating smart devices with the car. Once personal information is downloaded to, say, a rental car that the user may only have for a short time, it can very easily be accessed by others if the user doesn’t clear the system when they are done. Bluetooth is one of the most widely used methods for sharing smartphone information with the car, and unfortunately Bluetooth protocols such as Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP) are not ideal from a personal security point of view, as they typically require downloading the entire address book into the car. This is fine for a personal car, but obviously can pose a major privacy risk for a shared vehicle. Shared access to the destination history on the on-board navigation system presents another potential security risk.

Another workaround to the shared vehicle security dilemma is a “personal information reset” function that could potentially be offered by rental companies and car-sharing services. Rental company agents can perform this task manually, but that does not address the increasingly common scenario where the vehicle is shared between multiple users without ever being processed by an agent. These cases require a telematics box with reset capabilities that can be performed remotely (after each user) to delete all personal information after each use.

Biometric User Identity

One alternative to relying on the user’s smart device for personalization is the addition of some sort of biometric detection that enables the vehicle to validate the user and download preferences and settings via the internet. While viable, this approach comes with its own set of privacy and business challenges. To function successfully, the biometric solution requires a fully connected vehicle with high-end hardware, which could prove prohibitively expensive for rental and car-sharing fleets, while still raising privacy concerns. Until all vehicles roll off the line fully connected and completely secure, personal devices present a far more useful method for personalization.

Self-Driving Cars

Much of the public discussion around the future of self-driving cars centers on changes to the existing ownership model. If a car can drive itself, it becomes more logical and efficient to share that car among multiple users rather than letting it sit idle all day. An individual’s smart device could play an even more significant role in this future model – from “calling” the vehicle, to personalizing the in-vehicle experience as discussed above.

Using Smart Devices to Extend the Capabilities of Today’s Cars

Even before we reach a state of autonomous ride-sharing cartopia, smart devices can play a significant role in extending the capabilities of existing vehicles. Modern vehicles include hundreds of computers, but these are clunky, automotive-grade systems built to withstand harsh conditions, and in truth no computer in any vehicle can match the power of the computer the driver carries in his/her pocket every day.  The processors that power top of the line smartphones cannot simply be placed inside in-vehicle computers, and the Android based in-vehicle systems on the market so far have shown real limitations. Additionally, in-car hardware is difficult to update and will most likely remain static for the life of the vehicle, whereas smartphones are updated easily and frequently.

The most secure, efficient and viable way to leverage smart devices in the car today is to “project” or “stream” applications run on the consumer’s phone to the car, such that no personal information is ever stored in the vehicle. Services like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Abalta’s WebLink use screen projection technology to let users access their favorite mobile apps in the car for even greater personalization. Using this method, the system can be configured to never actually send personal information from the phone to the vehicle, but only access that information when the phone is connected. When the phone is disconnected, personal data is not available, eliminating the security risk in a shared vehicle.


Clearly, smart devices have advantages that can be leveraged to improve today’s automotive experience, from apps that unlock car doors to aforementioned screen projection technologies. The smartphone can even bring connectivity to cars that are otherwise un-connected, which includes the vast majority of vehicles on the road today.  See the recent post <The Path to the Future of Connected Cars: Over the Air and Through the Phone> for more information on how the phone can be used for over the air updates and a secure connection to the cloud.

Personal Smart Devices will continue to play a central role in the future of mobility, whether extending capabilities for existing vehicles or providing secure personalization services for autonomous, shared cars of the future.  As smart devices become more powerful and more ubiquitous, their usefulness in the car will only increase, making us all smarter in the long run.