Industry Pulse|UConnect’s Joni Christensen on cars, the cloud

Industry Pulse|UConnect’s Joni Christensen on cars, the cloud

As mobile connectivity becomes ubiquitous, the line between automobile and technology continues to blur. Car manufacturers must thoughtfully navigate the challenge of staying ahead of the ‘what’s on trend’ curve while also meeting the demands of consumers.That’s why automakers are putting their engineers to the test to figure out just how to keep us all connected when we need it and where we want it.

Enter the cloud. What is it? The cloud represents the Internet in a computer infrastructure that hosts files and applications in a remote location. It’s one of the best creations and one of the biggest reasons no one needs to be tied down to their desk chair anymore. For a more accurate definition, I went to Wikipedia. It says: “End users access cloud-based applications through a web browser or a light-weight desktop or mobile app while the business software and user’s data are stored on servers at a remote location.”

In a recent phone interview with Joni Christensen, who heads up UConnect marketing, she discussed how this one technology is changing how Chrysler’s cars connect.

The changing face of car connectivity

In-car mobile vehicle technology began with a clunky phone mounted in the floorboard. Emergency services like 911 and roadside assistance buttons were the next generation of connection to the outside world. Today, car connectivity is both wireless and instantaneous.

In launching its newest version of UConnect technology, Chrysler researched what customers truly want in their cars when it comes to technological offerings. Christensen explained the thought process of her team based in Michigan:

What we did – and this was very conscious – we did a lot of research and found that people have different attitudes toward technology. Some customers are happy to be barely connected – only using [the system] for emergencies – and there are customers who always are connected and would never leave their house without it. We realized we had to make our vehicles have a solution that worked for people across the spectrum of technology attitudes.

The challenge for car makers like Chrysler is to make a product that’s “not simply a touchscreen for the sake of having a touchscreen.” According to Christensen, the goal was to create a system that seamlessly works together with all of the technological components within the vehicle, such as the radio, navigation, and Bluetooth modules.

With all of the opportunities in the future, [Chrysler’s] mantra is that ‘if it’s not easy to use, we’re not going to do it.’ What good is technology that people don’t use? Every development we make along the way we make sure that we test it and it’s intuitive. That’s our recipe for success.

The touchscreen must also synchronize with the knobs and other buttons drivers use. And those steering wheel controls? Christensen told us that drivers can keep their hands on the wheel and control almost everything on the touchscreen, even using the voice recognition system to control it all. “Some folks love it, but others are still adapting to it,” she added.

Infographic via Click to enlarge.

Mobile Device vs.
Mobile Transport

Cars have long been an extension of the driver’s personality. Today, that goes beyond who we are to meet what we do. More than ever, we rely on our cars to be more than a mode of transportation – our cars must now provide an interactive experience.

Americans spend an average of 18 hours per week in their cars and nearly 3 hours per day on mobile devices. By 2014 mobile web browsing could top Internet usage from a desktop computer.

The car has become an unusual byproduct of the direction in which the technology industry is moving. Everything consumers want to do on their computers and mobile devices they want access to where they are spending a bulk amount of time – in the car. This is changing the way that we view our main mode of transportation. The car is no longer just four wheels that take us from point A to B, it’s becoming a mobile device.

“The car is the ultimate Cloud end-point to me. If you think of all the opportunities that it opens up, it’s much more served up to you the way you need it in the moment you need it, as opposed to trying to force any one person into any one technology.” – Joni Christensen, head of UConnect marketing

Do rolling technology hubs make us better workers?

Need web access while on the job but away from the office? Some of Chrysler’s vehicle can now serve as WiFi hotspots. No need to stop off at the local coffee shop to squeeze in a half-hour of checking and responding to work email. Just park your car and access Internet on-demand.

“A lot of truck owners are running their own businesses,” explained Christensen. “Their truck is their office in a sense.” She went on to give the example of a general contractor on a construction site and his employees need to get online. All the truck owner has to do is go into the vehicle’s touchscreen and he can purchase on-demand WiFi for that day, week or even the month.

The convergence of mobile technology and our automobiles may make us more efficient as workers. Some research indicates that employees who have the flexibility to work from home are happier in their jobs.

Just think about a busy salesperson who travels across many territories in a given week. Having access to Internet without having to type on a mobile device or schedule chunks of time at the hotel to do business could mean fitting in an extra sales call each day.

But when does all this technology start to distract us?

When asked about having too much freedom at your fingertips behind the wheel, Christensen emphasized that Chrysler wants to provide “not too much information, but what you need when you need it.”

She also noted that no distraction-inducing information is on the display while the vehicle is in motion, adding that this helps Chrysler remain compliant with the guidelines set forth by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“We just want people to put their phones away and focus on driving,” said Christensen.

It’s true that some customers simply want a basic radio with a USB port and an audio system. Christensen told us that even though Chrysler takes a ‘total cockpit’ approach to the UConnect system, the automaker also wants to give its customers a choice to customize their vehicles to their needs.

But could the cloud actually help curb bad habits like texting and emailing while driving?

“The cloud enables drivers to have access to a lot more processing power,” Christensen explained. “Previous generations of voice recognition systems were limited to the module within the car.”

UConnect allows drivers to send and receive text messages without ever touching a finger to a keyboard. Chrysler introduced voice texting as a feature enabled by the new built-in cellular connection powered by Sprint. Drivers do need a Bluetooth-enabled phone that supports the new MAP system, however, in order for the system to wirelessly broadcast text messages.

So what does the future hold?

Thanks to cloud computing, the convergence of cars and mobile technology will continue and in-vehicle systems will increasingly begin to look, feel and operate like computers. Christensen doesn’t think this is a bad thing, however,

I think that connecting the cars is a good step toward being able to shorten that and solve that problem of having out-of-date tech in cars. I think one of the things we’ll see – because we recognize the life of a vehicle is eight to 10 years and as quality improves it’ll get longer – is the end of obsolete technology and the ability to keep things up-to-date through the benefit of connectivity.

“The future generation of drivers won’t know life without screens or without being connected to the Internet,” Christensen concluded.

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This article was written by

Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.