How to turn any car into a connected car

Well, maybe not any car.
Well, maybe not any car.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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For anyone following the Paris Motor Show, one thing is clear: Automakers are taking the connected car seriously.

From Peugeot to Volvo, everybody is fitting out their new cars with touchscreens, computers, telematics, sensors, and internet connectivity. Even Orange, a large telecom company that does not make cars, has a concept for its own version of the connected car: It comes with two touchscreens.

Why have one touch-screen when you can have two?
Why have one touch-screen when you can have two?
Image: Orange

For proponents of connected cars—among them mobile operators and technology companies such as Google and Apple—the future cannot come soon enough. The lifespan of automobiles, unlike mobile phones, is measured in decades, not months. No amount of fancy gadgetry will convince someone who has a new car to upgrade in a hurry.

Telefonica, another large telecom company, has an idea. Most cars on the road today are fitted with an on-board diagnostics, or OBD II, port, which can spit out a wealth of information about the car’s performance, including distance driven. Plug in a third-party device and it can harvest all that information.

In the US, the insurance company Progressive offers a device that tracks drivers’ performance to save them money on their car insurance. Telematics-based insurance, as it is called, is popular in Italy and the United Kingdom.

Plug this in to connect your car.
Plug this in to connect your car.
Image: O2

Telefonica, which operates in Europe as O2, has another use for the port. It tied up with Zubie, an American company, to offer drivers in Germany a similar device. It includes a SIM card, a GPS chip, and an accelerometer, and fits into the OBD II port. With a companion app, it gives customers some of the benefits of a connected car, including the ability to monitor its performance, its location, summaries of driving performance and fuel cost, and suggestions for cutting down fuel use.

The chief benefit is that it corrects what Pavan Mathew, O2’s head of connected cars, calls the ”asymmetry of information” drivers face when they take a car to the service station. Look under the hood of most modern cars and you will be hard pressed to identify what part does what. As a result, drivers suffering a fault with their cars must take the word of the garage or dealership when they say something is wrong with it. Being able to see what’s going on under the hood on your smartphone “allows a better relationship between consumer and vehicle,” says Mathew.

O2 is starting in Germany, where it reckons some 43 million of the 65 million cars on the road have an OBD port, with plans to expand to other European markets. The company plans to charge €149 ($188) for the device and a year’s worth of service, with a fee of €5 per month from the second year. But in the long run, O2’s plan is similar to Progressive’s: once customers become comfortable with tracking their own driving patterns and behaviour, it is the logical next step to offer them a chance to share that information with insurance companies that need vast amounts of data in order to train their systems.