Do cars have the potential to replace smartphones as the ultimate mobile device?
Or will cars, as the executive chairman of Ford (F) mused rhetorically, become mere handsets for smartphone companies?
Automakers are attempting to answer the question, publicly revealing their respective "connected car" strategies. Last week in China, General Motors (GM) demonstrated how cars communicate with one another, with infrastructure such as traffic signals and with pedestrians to drastically reduce accidents.
In Tokyo, Toyota (TM) unveiled its "connected" strategy last week, asserting that cellphone manufacturers won't be the main link between passengers in its cars and the cloud -- Toyota will be. Last year, the automaker said it was investing $1 billion in a global effort to develop software and artificial intelligence.
"To guarantee the safety of the customer, the manufacturer must be the platform provider," said Shigeki Tomoyama, president of the automaker's new connected car subsidiary. Toyota vehicles will be connected to the Internet, he explained; the automaker will be a seller of services, not just cars and trucks.
"Connected" is a broad term used in an automotive context, referring to any way a car may be joined to the Internet for purposes of navigation, shopping, entertainment and a variety of potentially lucrative businesses.
Toyota is among those automakers that don't offer Apple Car Play or Android Auto as part of their infotainment packages. Car Play and Auto allow smartphones to be synched to infotainment systems, mirroring apps on dashboard screens. Why, Toyota seems to ask by withholding these handy features from its customers, should it help Silicon Valley software makers wriggle deeper into its business?
The past five years have witnessed a remarkable strategic turnabout as Silicon Valley companies like Tesla (TSLA) , Apple (AAPL) and Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google subsidiary have signaled their intention of getting into the transportation business. The incumbent automakers have responded by setting their sights on mastering digital technology, from communication to shopping to mapping to driverless technology.
Lately, Apple seems to have thrown in the towel, at least temporarily, while Google, after building and testing some impressive driverless prototypes, has grown strangely silent. At least one Google executive privately expressed disappointment -- denied officially by Google -- that progress toward a true driverless car hasn't come more quickly. Uber, another unexpected Silicon Valley entrant to the transportation business, is actively testing driverless prototypes in Pittsburgh.
Tesla, Google, Uber and others can take credit for energizing the global automotive business to "get off its collective duff" -- as journalist Bertel Schmitt put it in Forbes -- and accelerate efforts to deploy technology on behalf of consumers. As such, the race is growing more determined and the development costs are getting bigger.
Bill Ford Jr., Ford's executive chairman, unsurprisingly said has no intention of allowing the company his great grandfather founded to become a mere maker of handsets for Google and Apple. Given the brainpower and determination of Silicon Valley, Ford knows that fulfilling his promise will be anything but easy or assured.