The auto industry’s on a mission to turn our cars into rolling tech hubs.
Cars have their own Wi-Fi hotspots and Bluetooth built-in. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are proliferating the automotive landscape from Chevrolet to Ferrari.
The idea is so common now, we almost take it for granted. Like, of course yo can stream movies and work remotely from the passenger seat.
But what about older cars? The 1990s Toyota Camrys and Jeeps from the early 2000s? Some of those vehicles — typically equipped with nothing more than CD players and radios — won’t navigate you around traffic, or send text messages on voice command.
So companies like Drivemode are bringing cars built during the flip phone years up to speed with the smartphone age.
The concept is basically this: Drivemode, an app built by two Harvard Business School grads, operates on the notion that you can have a modern infotainment experience in your older car without having to upgrade the car’s original equipment.
“That should be easy,” Drivemode CEO Yo Koga told Business Insider. Koga said when he moved from Boston to San Francisco, he bought a new car that had a lacklustre tech interface. “It wasn’t connected, and it looked like a computer from the ’80s,” he said. So, he resorted to using his smartphone for navigation.
“But the smartphone interface is not great either,” he said, “it’s not optimised for driving; it’s got little buttons. It’s not safe.”
For the disconnected car crowd
Drivemode cofounder, HK Ueda, says they created the Android app to give people who drive older cars a way to enjoy a connected-car experience. “We started by giving it navigation functionality,” Ueda told us, as we weaved around San Francisco’s busy downtown streets.
Ueda is an alum of Tesla Motors. He spent his early career launching the Model S and Tesla’s Gigafactory.
With a smartphone docked inside the dash console of a Honda HR-V — Honda’s newest compact crossover SUV — the Drivemode app mimicked a native infotainment interface. The driver can operate navigation, handsfree calling and messaging, and the phone’s music player using the Honda’s steering wheel controls.
The car’s rear backup camera and blindspot camera also display on the phone.
Honda, Panasonic and Drivemode teamed up to develop this particular car, which foregoes a traditional in-dash audio system for a simple smartphone dock.
“Honda reached out to us and suggested building this as a prototype,” Ueda explained. “It simulates a car in which your smartphone is the car’s only in-dash computing device.”
Koga and Ueda say that Drivemode is designed so that you can operate it without having to look directly at the phone’s screen. Bright colours and intuitive animation denote switching between menus, and you can swipe anywhere on the screen to navigate within the app — no need to take your eyes off the road to find the right buttons to tap.
“Cognitive distraction is just as dangerous as visual distraction,” Ueda said, “we want to avoid you having to think about your phone while you’re using your phone in the car.”
It would seem technology like this is a step backward.
Automakers and Silicon Valley are working hard to make our cars smarter. And most new cars are going to have upgraded electronics at some point. But, as of 2015, the average vehicle on the road in the US is nearly 12 years old, according to the research firm, IHS.
Those vehicles were likely in development for some years before they ever hit the road, making it conceivable that the technology in those cars is even older. The guys at Drivemode say they believe it will take time for new in-car technologies to make a dent in the real world.
There is evidence to support this. Rand McNally, the company best-known for its maps and atlases, is one of Drivemode’s competitors.
The startup has raised at least $2.65 million in angel and seed funding, with a Series A round planned in the coming months. Drivemode has more than 400,000 users so far, Ueda tells BI — adding that they have seen significant growth internationally.
“This is a global problem. Everyone wants to use their smartphone in the car.”
You can watch the full Drivemode demo here:
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