A fusion of car and smartphone

A Fusion of Car and Smartphone

“Fusion” is a popular term used to describe a new cuisine, an energy source, or computing.  But it also covers a more personal change underway in our driveways and in our pocket: namely a fusion of cars and smartphones. In last month’s column we examined how these technologies have led to “the death of distance” and this week we get under the hood, and  examine some contemporary problems they share.

Privacy:

The recent disclosure that OnStar software was tracking users came as a surprise to many Chevy Bolt owners. They had not opted into the General Motors software, but eager dealerships had secretly signed them up for the data collection. Apparently there were incentives for dealerships to do this.

It is not the first time that we hear that cars are collecting information, ranging from black boxes in rental cars to on-board cameras and sensors that send data. Similarly, Apple has recently developed a product, like Onstar, that can send for help, if an iPhone’s sensors detect a proxy for a vehicle crash, such as rapid deacceleration. This feature is turned on by default and many users may not be aware of its existence until first-responders appear. Like Onstar, customers do not know that they are data sharing. 

Always Traceable:

In telecommunications, location is always traceable because mobile phones connect to three cell towers with a date-stamp and unique identifier, allowing for triangulation of location. Like the auto companies, cell providers are supposed to guard this data and not provide it to anyone with the possible exception of an official court subpoena. 

However, a recent phone scandal, like the Onstar debacle, was surreptitious. According to this report, the FBI developed an “Anom” phone, An  Android phone was repurposed with settings and software to resemble the burner phones used by organized criminals. It allowed the FBI and international law enforcement partners to covertly listen or watch users’ messages. There were 12,000 phones in circulation and they presumably tracked all “Anom” users, not just the bad guys.  

Setting Standards:

Compatibility:

Establishing a common interface to plug into the wall has belied both cars and smartphones. Firms used different methods to refine their engineering, lock-in market share, and entrap customer loyalty. Creating a single universal standard has taken years of struggle between large, dominant players and overarching government entities.

Yet another fusion between cars and phones comes with recent news that in 2025 electric vehicle chargers in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada will standardize to the North American Connecting Standard (NACS). This standard, also called the J3400, is the same one popularly known as the Tesla Charging Connector.  It will replace other charging connectors in use, particularly the CHAdeMO one from Japan. Older cars will use an adapter that couples with the J3400.

Smartphones have gone through a similar wave of standardization and compatibility. Most Android phones connect with a charging cable and then a Micro USB or USB-C connection. Newer Apple phones, beginning with the iPhone 15, now use a USB-C connection, allowing interchange of charging cables between devices. The European Union Commission played an important role in making Apple conform to a new standard and abandon its proprietary charging technology.

Overlap 1:

Multi-Use:

Perhaps the most spectacular fusion between cars and smartphones comes in their growing symbiotic relationship. Until now, we have associated cars with mobility and only the rare collector acquires a vehicle to sit in the garage. However, electric vehicles are now beginning to do stationary things. Ford designs its F150 to power electricity tools on worksites and illuminate campsites. Most electric vehicles on the market can power a house for up to two days when the grid goes down. Future electric vehicles in development will offer bidirectional charging to utilities, so that the utility can better level its load-demand. 

Phones, like cars, are good at traveling the extra mile, or at least complementing it. Frequent fliers know that the advent of rideshare has made getting from the airport to home or hotel far less arduous.  Travel trips in the car depend upon GPS for navigation, and many trips are rerouted or postponed because of live traffic information received on the phone. Phones have also become a hallmark of entertainment on the road, particularly as automakers have started to remove the trusty AM radio. 

Overlap 2:

Service Maintenance:

“Service life” is one of the rare areas where phones and cars do not follow the same path. We are fond of keeping cars between 8 and 12 years before they are traded in. Vehicle manufacturers warranty an electric vehicle battery pack for 8 years or 100,000 miles, sometimes longer. Although electric cars are frequently traded in before this period, they have fewer moving parts and require less regular scheduled service. 

Personal phones have a much shorter consumer life, and are traded every two or three years. However, if people could more easily replace the batteries in their phone it’s likely that they would keep them longer.  Like electric car batteries,  they can be recycled for their valuable minerals.

In the near future, if batteries become easier to replace or swap, fusion will grow. Then,  both phones and electric cars will extend their service lives, quietly update in the background, and continue to evolve as fusion companions.  


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