Cleantech Market Intelligence
Modular Mobile Phones Could Connect Vehicles
If you drive to work or school or the grocery store, there’s a good chance that your vehicle is at least 11 years old and probably runs just fine. If, on the other hand, you dig an 11-year old cell phone out of your junk drawer, there’s a good chance it won’t even start up and if it does, it might not have a network to connect to.
That dichotomy between vehicle longevity and electronic obsolescence will pose an increasing problem going forward as our vehicles become more connected to the world around us. Connectivity is likely to be one of the key building blocks toward a world of automated driving (as described in Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles), and an idea from a young Dutch designer that’s being brought to reality with the help of Google could be an important part of the solution.
In mid-2013, Dave Hakkens created a modular phone concept called Phonebloks that would enable users to pick and choose the components that make up their communication devices. By swapping out modules for cameras, processors, batteries, displays, and other components, consumers could upgrade only the pieces they needed, reducing electronic waste and prolonging the life of the devices. Google engineers subsequently picked up on the idea and launched Project Ara to help bring Hakkens’ concept to reality.
Keep the Vehicle, Toss the Phone
The Project Ara team has developed a novel magnetized mechanical interface to hold the modules together and provide the electrical interconnects that enable the whole system to work. In October 2014, Google demonstrated a working prototype Ara phone running Android. However, as Hakkens acknowledges, the idea doesn’t have to be restricted to the devices we carry in our pockets.
In 1996, General Motors launched OnStar, the first successful vehicle telematics system with a built-in cellular radio that enabled customers to get their cars remotely unlocked or automatically call for assistance in the event of an accident. Unfortunately, those early systems used the first-generation analog cellular network, and by 2007, they were permanently disconnected as the network was decommissioned. Mechanically, those vehicles still had many years of useful life left in them, but it would have been impractical to replace the OnStar systems with newer technology. That pace of change in wireless communications is not expected to slow down anytime soon, as we’ve already moved past 3G into 4G wireless in the 7 years since the original OnStar shutdown.
If it works, Project Ara could provide the solution to the conundrum of long-lived vehicles and changing communications technology. Google has not responded to a request for comment on the project, but if the company follows its past practice with Android and Chrome, it would not be surprising to see Google either open-source or license the interface on reasonable terms. This would enable automakers to incorporate one or more Ara-style slots in the vehicle while companies such as Qualcomm or Samsung produce new radio modules to support updated networks or capabilities. Manufacturers could even produce aftermarket systems to allow the installation of Ara modules into existing vehicles, enabling them to join in with the expanded connected vehicle ecosystem.
Decoupling the communications technology from the vehicle lifecycle could enable drivers to keep existing vehicles on the road while gaining the potential safety and efficiency benefits powered by ever-more affordable and capable electronic systems. What seemed like a fairly simple idea from Dave Hakkens could ultimately have a much wider impact on society.