We have all heard of ‘The Cloud’ in one form or another - as software or services used to let your smartphone photos, texts, apps and numerous other things sit in the cloud, waiting for you to take action with them, or just as a secure form of storage that isn’t device centric.

Officially, cloud computing is all about delivering on-demand computing services over the internet – think MS Office 365 for example. So how does that fit with new automotive technologies? Are connected cars truly using cloud computing, or are they just a step-up from ‘dumb’ technology?

a hand touching virtual cloud

Cloud-based systems in today’s cars

Undoubtedly, we are in the early days of car cloud computing. Predominantly, it’s used for functions such as GPS and car infotainment systems, although some manufacturers such as Tesla are a little more advanced. They offer to monitor car performance and fix problems without any action needed at the driver’s end. 

It could be argued that similar functionality has been available with some models and manufacturers for decades – the road going McLaren F1 is a prime example, and that was first released in 1993. A quarter of a century later, and OTA (Over The Air) updates are certainly more prevalent, along with being autonomous, but does that really represent 25 years of automotive technology?

Today we are on the cusp of true autonomous driving; we have simple systems that are capable of steering us along a chosen path. They can detect hazards and predict collisions, but they can’t yet offer us the full self-driving cars experience. Car cloud computing could help to change that.

a photo presenting big data schema

Big data at work

While we associate car cloud computing with on-demand services, there is a natural byproduct of that – data harvesting. Big data drives everything, from localisation and targeted advertising, right through to understanding why a mechanical component failed prematurely, and when it comes to the automotive industry, they’re ready to take full advantage. 

Part of the problem with full autonomy is the ability (or lack of) to make decisions outside of a pre-set formulation. However, if a series of connected cars were able to send, receive and more importantly, act upon live data such as traffic conditions, weather and routing, the whole self-driving experience could take an advanced step.

Equally, car manufacturers cloud systems could evaluate and store data that changes the manufacturing process, increase the period between routine servicing, allow for bespoke options or perhaps even give a live optimisation setting for the current journey.

Connected cars on the rise

So important is the whole car cloud computing arena, that Volkswagen have formed a strategic partnership with Microsoft to build a system dedicated to their brand – the Volkswagen Automotive Cloud. 

It’s believed to be the first of its type, and Volkswagen are aiming to have 5 million connected vehicles launched each year from 2020, with each vehicle forming just one small part of an automotive Internet of Things. This would give the German manufacturer the unprecedented ability to draw on a vast supply of big data analytics, dedicated to their brand and the advancement of automotive technology. The VW cloud is just part of a $4bn programme to boost its digital transformation by 2025.

The Internet of Things is the future

The same with any technology, early-adopters pay a premium for introducing it to their consumers, and while early functionality is always limited, it gives the brand a strong foothold in the market – something to build on.

a schema

Connected cars are the next step forward, and we’ve seen systems from all the large manufacturers such as Ford, Volvo or Toyota. Nevertheless, it isn’t so much about what that technology can do currently, but where it will lead each manufacturer to – the options are almost limitless. 

It’s estimated that there will be over 50bn devices connected to the Internet of Things within the next few years, and car makers have understood the possibility of the technology (and truthfully, it could pay dividends for both manufacturer and consumer once it is mainstream). 

Car cloud computing may still be in its infancy, but technology develops at an incomprehensible rate. While we’re currently limited to basic functionality such as infotainment, GPS and monitoring, you can almost guarantee that one of the large brands will have the latest technology incorporated in their new models within a year from now. Cars are simply getting more and more software-defined. 

It took the smartphone manufacturers less than ten years to go from a ‘dumb’ phone to what we have now, and while you could argue that there’s a little more at stake, automotive manufacturers will be pushing every step of the way to incorporate this technology.