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A car isn’t a smartphone on wheels – yet

August 5, 2021

We’re used to hearing that a car is a smartphone on wheels, and tend to assume the analogy is valid – but is it?

To find out, Capgemini has conducted industry research, including a series of in-depth expert interviews. The results show that several gaps need to be filled before even the most advanced cars are as smart as smartphones. For example, car makers need to combine a comparable range of everyday functions seamlessly into a single platform. (And that’s before we even consider whether the smartphone is really the model that we should ultimately be aiming for.)

In this article – the first of three – we discuss some ways in which cars fall short of the smartphone model. Building on this analysis, a subsequent article will define a series of measures and strategies for closing the gaps. A third and final article will discuss the infrastructure that needs to be provided before this can happen, including 5G, cloud processing technology, and vehicle architecture. We’ll also look beyond the smartphone analogy to consider how the automotive industry can achieve a level of success comparable with that of smartphones and the associated mobile applications.

It’s almost a truism to call a car a smartphone on wheels. It may have been Toyota president Akio Toyoda who first used the analogy, back in 2011. Subsequently, the same analogy has been repeated by OEMs worldwide (see panel) when they want to emphasize product features such as advanced connectivity, user-friendliness, customizability, and versatility.

 “Smartphone on wheels” – an analogy that the industry keeps coming back to

2011 Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda unveils a “smartphone on wheels” concept car. [1] With 4G on the rise, this analogy quickly becomes widespread.
2015 Daimler Head Dieter Zetsche says the car is becoming a smartphone on wheels.[2]
2015 Volkswagen brand chief introduces future VW cars as smartphones on wheels.[3]
2016 China’s “Internet car” from Alibaba and SAIC is marketed as a smartphone on wheels that can take selfies and pay for your coffee.[4]
2017 Nio’s CEO Padmasree Warrior says, “We want to be the first company that builds the next-generation mobile space”, the company wants to build a computer on wheels.[5]

Indeed, the automotive industry’s developments around digital and connected services have often followed, or been shaped by, those seen in smartphones. This influence is not surprising. Smartphones have achieved a unique position in our daily lives over the past few years, from the moment when Apple’s iPhone first appeared. This success has been due to their groundbreaking combination of functions: phone, camera, music player, browser, calendar, and more, all integrated into a single platform.

Of course, a car is never going to be a smartphone, and in many ways it is very much more. Nor do automotive manufacturers lag behind their phone industry counterparts in general. They are already making rapid progress in areas that smartphone makers don’t have to worry about, such as drivetrains, autopilot, and predictive collision avoidance.

Yet smartphones do provide a useful model of how technological progress and connected services should be delivered and integrated into a platform, and the automotive industry has benefited from this model. Many major milestones in the smartphone evolution were achieved by vehicles approximately three to five years later. For example, voice control was provided in smartphones in 2009, but the first voice applications in vehicles didn’t appear until 2013 and beyond. Mobile payments were available on phones in 2017/18, but in cars they have only recently been introduced, or have yet to appear[6]. In addition, there are several areas where even the most advanced and intelligent of today’s cars still fall short of the smartphone model.

It’s useful to understand these gaps, so in this article we’ll consider some aspects of smartphones that we believe explain their success and their central role in our lives. We’ll compare those aspects of phones with how cars currently look, using three perspectives:

  1. usability & customer interaction,
  2. app landscape & operating system, and
  3. innovation & updatability.

This will help us understand what developments are required before cars’ functionality can become as indispensable as that of smartphones.

Usability & customer interaction

From the customer perspective, there are two major value drivers: usability and customer interaction.

In terms of usability, smartphones score more highly than cars because they can satisfy a wide range of user requirements and everyday purposes. They can serve as cameras or timers, allow the user to watch videos, and so on. This flexible and broad value proposition is a major success factor for smartphones. Indeed, for most users making phone calls is no longer the smartphone’s main function – a disruptive change.

Compared to smartphone usage, the driving situation demands significantly more attention, and so the range of tasks that can be safely performed is limited. Hence, transportation remains the major value proposition of today’s cars, though this picture could change dramatically as automated and autonomous driving functions mature. In the future, if driving is no longer the main activity while spending time in a vehicle, the driver can become more like a passenger, able to make greater use of in-car services.

As well as having a more limited range of functionality available to them, car drivers miss out on the seamless user experience that smartphone owners enjoy. Thanks to the use of a single account across all devices, if a smartphone user updates a calendar entry or contact, say, that update is instantly visible on the user’s tablet, laptop, and so on. With a car, even if the driver logs in to use a connected service, or has a phone app to lock and unlock the vehicle, they can’t expect that updates will get transferred between the car and their other devices, because they probably need to use a separate account for the car. In other words, the car is not yet part of the “digital portfolio.”

We’ve seen that cars fall short of smartphones’ usability in a few respects. Let’s now turn to customer interaction. Smartphone producers and app or service providers are good at interacting with customers, and they leverage the customer data they collect to take better care of their customers. People expect to receive personalized offers and recommendations while they are using smartphones, and to be able to engage in direct communication (e.g. via chat).

App landscape & operating system

The smartness of a device depends on the variety of ways in which it can deliver value to the user – which in practice means the variety of third-party apps – and on how well these services or apps are integrated to support different aspects of the user’s driving experience and wider lifestyle.

A vast number of third-party apps – perhaps 2–3 million in total – have been designed and developed for smart devices. Cars fall short of smartphones in this area, with far fewer apps. Smartphone users can find apps to address virtually every purpose you can think of, in both B2B and B2C segments. For cars, the connected services apps are mostly focused on infotainment, telematics, safety & security, and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connectivity. Examples of V2X functionality include traffic lights alerting vehicles to adjust their speed to take account of an impending change from green to red, and vehicles warning each other of hazards to prevent collisions.

There are several reasons for the difference in the size of the application landscapes for phones and for cars. One is the smaller user base. There are almost 4 billion smartphone users worldwide, but probably only around 120 million connected cars on the roads[7]. That small user base, coupled with the fact that people don’t use the connected services in their cars as intensively as those on their phones, makes connected cars a less appealing market for third-party app developers.

The way services are supplied and integrated is another major area of difference between cars and phones, and one that further explains the difference in the app landscape. The phone app market is centralized around two players, Google/Android (with around 72% of the market) and Apple/iOS. These two have massive negotiating power, can define guidelines and standards, and run app stores via which the vast majority of apps are offered to customers. This structure has led to the growth of a huge ecosystem of third-party developers, who can take much of the credit for the richness of functionality available to smartphone users.

For cars, the ecosystem is far more fragmented. Regarding operating systems, some OEMs want to offer their own: For example, Daimler is aiming to launch MB.OS by 2025. Volkswagen has bundled its software competencies into a newly formed entity, CARIAD, to develop the VW.OS operating system (a pre-existing VW project targeted to complete in 2025). However, more and more OEMs – including Polestar and Ford – are adopting Android Automotive. Clearly, this fragmented landscape is less open, and less attractive to app developers, than that presented by smartphones. Smartphone app developers need to consider just two operating platforms, but anyone launching an app for cars is likely to have to create – and, worse, to support, update, and maintain – multiple versions.

In addition, OEMs have tended to limit the range of apps that get integrated into their cars – often for good reasons such as safety considerations – and this has made it a difficult market for developers to access. This represents another major gap between phones and cars, and one that the industry needs to close. In fact, the gap may start to close very soon whether we like it or not, because regulations such as the EU’s Digital Markets Act are likely to enforce the availability of third-party app stores within cars, and will limit OEMs’ ability to act as gatekeepers to their platforms.

On balance, this opening up of the market is good news for OEMs. The creation of an ecosystem that encourages third-party apps will be crucial for the industry’s ability to combine diverse valuable functionality into a single platform in the way that has been achieved with smartphones. Furthermore, OEMs can start to earn money from software as well as hardware. There is more than one way to do this. One approach is through revenue sharing models like those from which smartphone vendors such as Apple already benefit. Another approach is for OEMs to develop operating systems and license them to other OEMs, perhaps on an as-a-service basis. There will also be opportunities for exploiting the wealth of data generated by connected services. OEMs can derive insights that help them (and their ecosystem members) to offer the individualized services that customers really value.

Innovation & updatability

At present, cars do not keep up with technological innovation anywhere as successfully as phones do. We’ll discuss two main reasons. One is about the rate at which manufacturers and their ecosystem partners can innovate. The other reason is to do with the way innovation is distributed to customers using the finished products.

It’s relatively easy to ensure that most smartphones are equipped with the latest technology. Development cycles are short (around one year), and users tend to replace their phones around every two to three years. This rapid innovation results in a sophisticated device, with very fast processing and response times, and advanced use of many different types of data; for example, interpretation of sensor and image data. This is supported by mobile cloud services that smartphones often use to offload heavy data processing and storage outside the device.

Vehicles have a much longer development cycle of up to five years – so much so that hardware can already seem outdated when it is launched. In addition, cars tend to have a longer lifespan of around seven years (or two to three years for commercial vehicles). It’s one reason why a car is currently a less streamlined device than a phone, and more limited as to the amount and type of data it can work with, and what it can do with it.

It isn’t possible – or desirable from the sustainability viewpoint – to make people change their cars more often. So the main way to bridge this gap is for OEMs to adopt a more customer-centric development process that reduces time to market and ensures that evolving customer expectations (and technological possibilities) are reflected in the models they deliver.

Another way to keep cars up to date is to add innovative features once they’re on the road. That brings us to a second key differentiator between cars and phones in the technology area: the ability to distribute innovation in the form of software updates to an existing device. Smartphones are usually permanently online and can receive regular updates, processed in the background. By contrast, smart cars tend to be offline a lot of the time, even if they can be remotely activated, for example for climate control purposes. Even when they are online, this does not mean that they can necessarily receive over-the-air (OTA) software updates the way a smartphone can; this depends on the car’s architecture, plus the availability of updates and of the infrastructure necessary to enable those updates.

Progress is already happening here, with Tesla’s lead being followed by the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW. But at present, only the newest models in a range tend to have these capabilities, so there is still a way to go before cars have the updatability of phones. Wider adoption of OTA updates can greatly improve the automotive industry’s ability to deliver innovation to customers.

Closing the gaps

We’ve discussed several gaps between smart cars and smartphones. We believe that it’s essential to close these gaps if the industry wants to meet the needs of today’s consumers. Closing the gaps will also enable automakers to reach their goals of transforming into “original experience manufacturers”.

From the customer perspective, it’s important to improve flexibility and usability. The rise of automated and autonomous driving brings a lot of opportunities for smartphone-like user interaction. It is, however, crucial that OEMs identify the applications that will really be used.

The app landscape needs to catch up, particularly in terms of the way functionality is created, delivered, and integrated. The emergence of app stores for third-party apps may improve matters, and offer OEMs additional revenue streams from revenue sharing and as-a-service operating system delivery, as well as opportunities for data utilization and monetization.

In the innovation area, the key is to adopt faster, more customer-centric processes, and to find a way to deliver innovation more effectively to cars on the road – which depends on making OTA software updates pervasive and effective, and providing the necessary infrastructure.

Beyond the smartphone?

Some industry players are now questioning whether the smartphone model is really the one they should be aiming for. It’s been proposed that cars should, in fact, be computers on wheels as suggested by Nio, or maybe sci-fi living rooms on wheels (BMW). Arguably, though, the automotive industry needs to create its own vision of the future, rather than imitating other sectors. We’ll return to these issues later in this series.

Whatever we think about these more futuristic ideas, for now, at least, the smartphone sets the standard that cars need to match in terms of integrating diverse everyday functionality into a single platform in order to provide a seamless, interactive user experience that truly meets user expectations about connectivity and functionality. In the next article of this series, we will discuss in more detail how the industry can close up the gaps between cars and smartphones, which we believe is an essential first step.

Referenced links:
[2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] Statista, “Connected Car Outlook.”


Marc Caesar
Sebastian Tschödrich
Vice President – Automotive, Capgemini Invent
Dr. Marc Cäsar
Director – Automotive Digital, Capgemini Invent

Contributing Authors:

Marc PauliYue MaSimon MonskeMichael Röller, and Christopher Hofmann