Automakers Are Improving Self-Driving Cars With Troves of Data

Based on behavioral and location stats

Automakers are betting on data to drive adoption of self-driving cars.
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BARCELONA, SPAIN—Can connected cars know more about you than you do? Automakers hope so.

Techy cars and autonomous driving are buzzy topics at this week’s Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, and automakers are here to talk data.

During a series of panels about autonomous cars becoming a platform for content and services, auto execs talked about how they’re using souped-up sets of data to power the connected car. For BMW’s svp of digital business models Dieter May, he envisions the car becoming an extension of an apartment or a house, where consumers can relax when a robot partially takes the wheel.

“The interior will be much more adaptive, personalized like your apartment or your house at home and it adapts to you and your personality,” he said. “Overall, it’s much more lounge-like, like you see in all these concept cars because you don’t want to turn around when leaving autonomous driving mode.”

While automakers routinely pitch new tech bells and whistles, experiences are increasingly becoming a main way that automakers market connected cars.

“You need a different interior concept in order to really facilitate a great consumption of media content of digital services,” May said.

“If every car was shared, we’d only need 10 percent of the cars that we have on the road today."
Manik Gupta, head of products and maps at Uber

May said that BMW’s connected car efforts are built around machine learning and a platform called BMW Connected that crunches data to create mini-profiles of owners to personalize car services. The platform includes an Apple Watch app and an Amazon Echo skill that consumers can use to manage their preferences.

BMW creates about 2 million connected vehicles a year and 20 percent of drivers choose to give the brand data on themselves.

“We can couple in all kinds of data feeds and third-party services,” May said.

For instance, the platform can learn over time that someone always leaves the house at 6 a.m. Coupled with weather data, BMW can heat up a car remotely in the morning if the weather drops to a specific temperature.

Meanwhile, Manik Gupta, Uber’s head of products and maps, talked about location data and the ride-sharing app’s self-driving pilots that have initially struggled in cities like San Francisco but are still going on in Pittsburgh.

“Self-driving maps are things that lots of companies are investing in—we’re investing in them as well,” he said. “It requires a completely new and detailed level of precision that has never been seen before.”

To Gupta’s point, he said that some autonomous cars need centimeter-level mapping, meaning that GPS data that typically covers 10 meters is not safe.

While autonomous cars are likely years away from becoming mainstream, Gupta added that 10 percent of Uber’s millennial users in the U.S. have either given up their car or don’t plan to buy a car, suggesting that automakers won’t necessarily need to create millions of driverless vehicles before they catch on with consumers.

"This is the next challenge that we need to overcome—to give more assistance to drivers to make driving more safe."
Nikolai Reimer, head of mobile online services and connectivity at Volkswagen

“If every car was shared, we’d only need 10 percent of the cars that we have on the road today,” he said.

In another presentation, AccuWeather spoke about how it’s developing car technology that detects and in some cases anticipates weather patterns to keep drivers safe. For example, a dashboard built into the car may soon be able to alert drivers when they are 30 seconds away from hitting a patch of black ice.

“We’re getting out mile-by-mile predictions and eventually we’ll have that down to 10-foot interval forecasts for all the highways in the world so drivers will be better prepared to handle severe weather,” said Joel Myers, founder, chairman and president of AccuWeather.

Indeed, despite all the hype around how connected cars will make life more comfortable, safety remains one of automakers’ biggest concerns.