1. How will Google bring self-driving cars to market? Google wants to bring shared self-driving cars to market by 2020. In 2015, it showed signs of inching toward the marketplace by bringing aboard John Krafcik to lead the program and commencing testing in Austin, Texas. With a manufacturing deal with Ford reportedly in the works, 2016 may bring more concrete signs of Google's go-to-market plan. Meanwhile, Google's archrival Apple Inc. continues to explore cars in secrecy.
2. Will vehicle-to-vehicle communications really happen? For more than a decade, the U.S. government has pushed technology that would allow cars to “talk” to one another to avoid crashes, using a wireless communications frequency. It hasn't hit the market — though General Motors says it'll be offered on the 2017 Cadillac CTS — and the government hasn't built any roadway infrastructure to enable it. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has vowed to propose rules by the time President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017, but will that happen?
3. Can the auto industry patch its security holes? The dark side of connected cars is that every additional connection creates another way for a wrongdoer to gain access to a car's internal network. A big reminder of this risk arrived in 2015, when security researchers showed they could wirelessly tap into a Jeep Cherokee and slam the brakes or shut off the engine. In 2016, automakers will be racing to make their cars more secure in hopes of outrunning the bad guys — and hoping nothing happens that might chill customers' acceptance of connected cars.
4. Will automakers catch up to Tesla's over-the-air updates? Tesla Motors raised the bar by designing its Model S to receive smartphone-style updates over the airwaves. Now, other automakers are trying to match it. Ford turned to Microsoft in 2014 for Wi-Fi-based updates to its Sync 3 infotainment system. Subaru ordered an infotainment system from Harman with built-in over-the-air updates. Expect many more companies to follow suit in 2016. 5. Will Silicon Valley's car-buying services find fans? Fast-growing technology startups such as Beepi, Roadster, Shift and Carvana think online marketplaces could make ordering a car as simple as buying a pair of shoes on Zappos. With modern software, customers can order a new or used vehicle online (depending on the service) while avoiding the hassles and haggling of shopping at a dealership. Their growth in 2016 will be key in signaling whether such services are a flash in the pan or a lasting part of the automotive landscape. 6. Which suppliers will claim pole position for connected, automated cars? It looks like the car of the future essentially will be a supercomputer on wheels, with centralized processors replacing most of the dozens of modules in a modern car. Tier 1 suppliers such as Bosch, Continental and Delphi are girding themselves for such a shift, and coalitions are forming around key components (see the autonomous-driving computer being developed by Nvidia, Elektrobit and Infineon). Expect more of the same in 2016 as suppliers change with the times.
7. Will the adoption of Autopilot provoke a pushback? This time last year, Mercedes-Benz seemed to hold the lead in automated driving. A year later, Tesla Motors leaped past Mercedes-Benz with its powerful Autopilot system, seemingly because of an unmatched willingness to take risks. With drivers taking their hands off the wheel at highway speeds, a crash now seems almost inevitable. If the unthinkable happens in 2016, how would the public, press and government respond?
8. Will customers grow attached to CarPlay and Android Auto? The summer of 2015 brought a rapid ramp-up of Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto, with General Motors, Honda and Volkswagen delivering the most cars with these two smartphone interfaces. In 2016, as sales rise and owner surveys go out, it will become clearer whether these software packages are essential or on track to be forgotten like the iPod hookups first offered in 2004. 9. When will cars and homes speak the same language? Connecting a car to a smartphone is useful, but so is connecting a car to a home and the devices inside. Automakers are moving toward that future: Honda, Toyota and Nissan sell systems in Japan that allow a car owner to link an electric vehicle or hydrogen car to a home for emergency power. Expect much more in 2016 as consumer electronics companies devote a greater share of their attention to the Internet of Things.
10. How quickly could virtual reality arrive in the car business? Just as 2015 was the year of the smartwatch, 2016, with the launch of systems such as Oculus Rift, could become the year of virtual reality. Automakers already are testing similar technology for showroom demonstrations (Volvo), vehicle maintenance (Hyundai) and driving (Mini) as well as advanced head-up displays for dashboards. If virtual reality is a hit for entertainment, it quickly could be adopted for cars, too.
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