The truly digital car is en route

Car manufacturers are packing more and more digital technology into cars - but Mercedes-Benz has its eyes on what a post-digital car might look like

Some years ago, I took my car – a Renault Megane – in to be serviced by the garage I’d bought it from. The owner sighed, with more than a little exasperation. There was a persistent electrical problem that they were having problems tracking down. “You need to be a programmer as much as a mechanic,” he sighed before accepting the keys. That problem was resolved, but his assessment was right. Our cars have become digital environments – and possibly post digital ones – almost without us noticing.

That same manufacturer – Renault – launched its new RLink system at a lavish bash at L’Atelier Renault on the Avenue des Champs Élysées in Paris, just before last year’s Le Web conference. The gathered crowd of journalists, notables and bloggers were treated to the first sight of the manufacturer’s new dashboard “tablet”, which is being integrated into their Clio and Zoe lines. And while calling this device a tablet might be a stretch – it is fully integrated into the dashboard – it’s an Android-derived device on which developers can build apps – and push out through an app store. The car is becoming a technology platform, and we’ve barely noticed it happening.

Renault is not the first to tread this path. Ford has been pushing its Sync system which links your car seamlessly with your mobile devices for several years now, with a particularly heavy push at the tech community through extensive advertising on Leo LaPorte’s TWiT network of podcasts.

But this year’s CES gave us a glimpse into a whole new world of digital integration with our cars. Mercedes-Benz showed off its vision of a truly connected cars. That doesn’t just mean connecting the car’s systems with your phone, or with your social networks – but with each other as well. The @yourCOMAND system. SlashGear reported on some of the possibilities:

“As much as a smartphone can be far more than just a tool for communication, a smart car can be more than just a means of transportation” Mercedes-Benz head Dr. Dieter Zetsche said at the tech show today. “Precisely at the interfaces between communication and mobility, vast potential for innovation lies dormant, and we intend to tap it.”
Zetsche also suggested that the in-car telemetrics could be used to create impromptu car-shares, alerting those in need of a ride that there’s a vehicle nearby, headed in the right direction, that has a spare seat. Called CarTogether, it could use Facebook as an organizational venue, and sit alongside traditional short-term rental schemes like ZipCar.

A heads-up augmented reality display on the windscreen is another possibility.

A truly digital car? Yes. A post digital driving experience? Almost certainly…