In a relatively short period of time, consumers have witnessed the technology disruption of everything from booksellers to travel planning to music and the mainstream media. Now it appears that the automobile industry is next in line, a transformation that could dramatically reshape major areas of the global economy and public transportation.

Shared and autonomous cars seen as the future for transport

The latest trends in car technology and its impact on the world’s major automakers captured much of the discussion at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) conference earlier this month as a host of industry speakers appeared during the event in San Jose, California.

And a central focus of the conversation concerned the car of the future, which will be connected, electric, shared, and autonomous.

For major automakers, they’ve fully achieved the first requirement and partially reached the second. But they are being significantly outmaneuvered by tech companies on the shared and autonomous front, leading to speculation that the big automakers’ control of future cars may well be no longer under their control. As Uber’s chief technology officer – Thuan Pham – told the gathering last week in San Jose, “In the next 20 years, people may not be owning cars at all.”

That is certainly Uber’s plan, as the company continues to press its competitive advantage, not just in the U.S., but in other areas of the world such as Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

And they are doing it by raising huge amounts of capital without the pressure of public stockholders, something that big automakers like Ford and General Motors must contend with, often to their detriment. “Uber is the one who has scared big automakers, rather than Tesla,” said Sean Behr, the founder of Stratim which provides logistics services for transport companies.

Behr spoke at a panel discussion during C2SV.

One of the reasons is that Uber is already building technology to turn their shared driving model into one where autonomous cars will potentially dominate the urban driving pattern. The company put 100 autonomous SUVs on the streets of Pittsburgh in August as a pilot of their self-driving fleet program.

Transportation experts are even beginning to envision a time when mass transit systems will become obsolete. “It’s a waste,” said Behr, who highlighted the light-rail system in Los Angeles as a model of a system “that takes too long to build and no one is riding it.”

New software is dominating automobile innovation

Recent developments suggest that automakers may be fighting an uphill battle to stay relevant in a new world order where software rules what consumers want in their cars, not hardware. Earlier this month, BMW announced that their connected services platform would soon allow owners of Amazon’s voice-activated assistant – Alexa – to remotely unlock doors and check maintenance. “Companies are realizing that if they’re just a hardware manufacturer, their future is probably not all that bright,” said Behr.

Car makers held the competitive advantage at one point. More than 20 years ago, General Motors (GM) introduced its OnStar communications and navigation system for motorists. The promise of vehicle tracking, anti-theft, and on-call emergency road service showed that the auto industry was willing to move towards a more innovative model.

But GM failed to leverage the technology into other platforms and just a few days ago announced that they will no longer provide updates for the OnStar mobile link. “What they had was game changing twenty years ago and they squandered it,” said Dave Lyons, the co-founder of Peloton Technology, who also spoke at C2SV.

GM’s lesson is one of speed. In August, nuTonomy began tests on an autonomous fleet of taxis in a Singapore district, as the competition between their fledgling company and bigger players such as Uber and Google heats up.

The major car makers can only watch from the sideline as technology companies reshape the automotive future.

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