'Quiet revolution' opens up car system design to public ideas

The opportunities to hack your car - installing custom software or requesting custom hardware - are on the rise.

Despite being one of the great beneficiaries of new technologies, from steam power to microchips, the automobile in its basic form has proven remarkably resistant to change. A passenger saloon today would be recognisable - and almost immediately drivable - to the owner of a 1908 Ford Model T, and for many of the same reasons that made the Model T the industrial revolution's greatest achievement. Like the promise from its maker that you could have a Ford in any colour you wanted as long as you wanted black, the modern car remains a particularly closed product in its manufacture.

A home buyer can choose any number of architectural designs and someone in the market for a new computer can build one from the ground up with different components. But if you want a car, you have a choice: get it the way the manufactuer made it, or spend a lot of money getting something made unique. But as manufacturing systems advance in their capabilities, consumer demands fragment and a new generation of "digital native" car buyers take to the market, the opportunities to hack your car - installing custom software or requesting custom hardware - are on the rise.

The trend is magnified by the fact that the technology within cars is becoming increasingly integrated with the technology of computers and the internet, from the type of computer chips and programming languages used in electronics systems to the flat screens, satellite navigation and web connectivity that are gradually becoming standard in the industry. Through the month of June, Volkswagen pushed this trend to one logical conclusion, running a first-of-its-kind competition that invited technology-savvy members of the public to submit their proposals for software applications that could be integrated into the VW system.

Winners of the contest, which closed this weekend, will be offered cash, prizes and the opportunity to complete an internship in a VW research and development centre. "Our aim is to invite the international developer community to take part in designing a future system," said Volkswagen's head of research, Dr Jürgen Leohold, on launching the contest. One entrant to Volkswagen's "App My Ride" contest proposed a system that would let drivers pay virtual cash at tollbooths, drive-through windows and parking lots via the car's entertainment system. Another envisioned a software application that would display a "super dashboard" for motorsport fans, building on basic information such as speed with stats on the current G-forces, engine utilisation and torque curve of the car.

Since the launch of the Apple iPhone and its associated software download store, the concept of the "application store" has spread from the mobile phone industry across the consumer electronics market, with computer makers, television companies and gaming console makers all realising the potential of their products as software platforms. Cars, Volkswagen and others are fast realising, are another frontier for the applications craze. A person in their car represents the kind of captive audience that is now all the rage in the internet industry. A car owner is, for obvious reasons, someone with spending power, and most likely somebody who travels each day to and from work. That commute, any internet or media industry executive understands, is a seriously valuable space to be involved in.

Drivers need media, such as music, entertainment, news and information. They frequently make purchasing decisions from the driver's seat, from where to fill up with petrol to where to eat their next meal or what to do that night. They need to communicate from their car, often to people who are also driving in cars at the time. And they would often pay a premium for some specific, time-sensitive information, such as which exit to take to get out of the terrible traffic jam they have fallen into.

Smart car companies are destined to realise that, like mobile phone makers, selling their hardware is really just the beginning. Selling access to their "platform", the hundreds of millions of people sitting inside their products and interacting with their systems at any given time is a highly profitable product. And unlike a car transaction, which the average person goes through on a yearly basis at most, the car platform is something that can be sold hundreds of millions of times on a daily basis.

Modifications to the physical car have been around for as long as the car has been a mass-market product. From body kits that boost aerodynamics or improve looks to replacement computer chips that can boost engine power or fuel efficiency, customising the car has been a way of life for enthusiasts for decades. But such modifications have remained popular among a niche crowd, and the typical car owner would do little more than buy new seat covers or replace the stereo.

BMW, through its Mini brand, has done more to make the customisation culture mainstream than any other car maker. Since relaunching the brand in 2000, it has pioneered the use of the internet to let prospective Mini owners choose everything from the colour and fabric mix of the interior to the mural design on the car's roof, even letting buyers submit their own photographs or artworks for printing. The Mini website now claims buyers can create up to 10,000,000 different configurations.

The customisation strategy has led Mini to be a consistently popular brand among young people, with the marque frequently landing in the upper percentile of desirability surveys among under-40 buyers. While letting buyers customise the physical makeup of a car may have been a PR coup, the windfall profits will come from the kind of software and applications marketplaces that Volkswagen has hinted at with this month's contest. The research group, iSuppli, expects 55 million cars to be equipped with internet access by 2015. Those 55 million drivers will be expecting to do more with their web connections than access a satellite map or send an email.

"A quiet revolution is taking place right now," said Dr Johann Füller, the CEO of Hyve AG, an innovation agency that worked with Volkswagen on the applications contest. "The customer-orientated culture of the internet places an enormous power in the hands of the users." tgara@thenational.ae