Nowak: Most cars will soon double as smartphones—and it'll change the way we drive


Last week, I had the chance to sit down with Sebastien Marineau-Mes, BlackBerry’s senior vice-president of software, to talk about the company’s present and future. The meat of that conversation, which can be found here, naturally centered around BlackBerry and its road map beyond the current Z10 and Q10 phones.

But, toward the end of our chat, we ventured into an intriguing area: the connection of cars to the Internet. BlackBerry’s subsidiary QNX, which is where Marineau-Mes comes from, is after all very active in infotainment operating systems for automobiles. The company actually has 60% of the market, he says.

I asked him, half joking, when cars will finally all get SIM cards, and was surprised that he actually had a serious answer. It’s already happening in some high-end cars, but what’s more surprising is that there’s a general feeling among involved parties that the majority of vehicles will have built-in modems by 2017, he said.

Only one thing is really standing in the way at this point: “The biggest challenge to adopting that is really for [wireless] operators to come up with a good way to manage your plan, because clearly you don’t want to pay another $50 a month just to get a SIM card.”

The short-term answer to avoiding having an extra wireless plan has been to tether cars to smartphones, the same way that many people are currently doing with computers and tablets. But the advantages to having the car connect directly far outweigh the negatives. For one thing, cars are big so they can have large antennas built into them, which means much better reception.

The long-term solution is therefore to build the cost of the wireless subscription into the car purchase price. BlackBerry, since it is making the operating system at the center of all of this, is acting as the catalyst or broker between wireless carriers and auto makers to make it all happen.

“In the long term we’re all in agreement that it’s going to be SIMs,” Marineau-Mes says. “You need to have enough critical mass of carriers around the world with the right business model to really make that a broad deployment.”

You can already hear the safety worry-warts screaming bloody murder, the same way they do whenever anyone wants to add anything to cars (there have been concerns over everything from ashtrays to radios). The benefits to having internet-connected cars are fairly obvious—they’ll be able to pull real-time traffic and navigational details, and even potentially communicate with other similarly equipped cars to actually improve safety. If cars can become “aware” of other vehicles, there’s great potential to decrease the risk of accidents.