Connected cars – Driving SME competition through direct data access

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Will it be possible to sustain a vibrant landscape of competitive automotive SMEs in Europe in the future? Or will Brussels allow a few industrial giants to dominate the mobility services sector? [Shutterstock]

Digital devices have already transformed the way of life. Now, with automated transport on the horizon, will it be possible to sustain a vibrant landscape of competitive automotive SMEs in Europe in the future?  Sylvia Gotzen provides an insight.

Sylvia Gotzen is the CEO of FIGIEFA. FIGIEFA is the European federation and political representative in Brussels of the independent wholesalers and retailers of automotive replacement parts and their associated repair chains.

Imagine you’re driving along the motorway when your car engine suddenly malfunctions. You pull over to take stock. Is it a flat battery? A faulty part? Nowadays, you might have to wait for a breakdown assistance vehicle to arrive. But in the era of the connected car, this wait could be a thing of the past.

Digital devices have already transformed how we live and work. Now, they’re set to revolutionise how we drive and access vehicle services. Within the next seven years, 60% of new vehicles will have telematics capabilities, allowing you to continue your journey without delay with the help of error diagnosis and breakdown repair support from a distance.

As cars ‘go digital,’ it is vital that independent service providers are not shut out of this transformation. From the car mechanic on your street to the thousands of repair shops across the continent, Europe’s automotive aftermarket encompasses a vibrant value chain of more than 500,000 companies that provide vehicle replacement parts, diagnostic test equipment and repair information.

The 4.3 million employees in this sector all contribute to a system which offers competitive choice and, by extension, affordable vehicle care for drivers. Today, because these independent operators have a direct physical interface, it is possible to access the vehicle’s data to carry out their services.

For aftermarket businesses to offer strong digital mobility solutions, today’s innovative service models should evolve seamlessly into those of tomorrow. But the future of these small and medium-sized businesses is under threat – not because they aren’t competitive or able to “go digital”, but because vehicle manufacturers are positioning themselves as gatekeepers of all data generated by the ‘connected car.’

The ‘placebo’ solution proposed by telematics manufacturers

To provide digital products and services, aftermarket companies need equal digitalisation opportunities and access to in-vehicle data and functions, the same as vehicle manufacturers use for their own aftermarket services.

Yet as cars go digital, most manufacturers are designing their telematics systems as closed ‘black boxes,’ controlling who has access to data and under what conditions (known as the ‘Extended Vehicle’ concept).

For ‘third-party’ access to data, they have created separate systems where vehicle data is sent first to their own servers, before being filtered and aggregated, and only then being made available to independent operators. This puts independent operators in a position of having to request access to data and vehicle functions from their direct competitor: the manufacturer.  

In reality, the second-hand data offered by the ‘Extended Vehicle’ is of little use to enterprises which have built their whole business models around live, direct access to in-vehicle data. For the aftermarket, being able to instantly and directly communicate with the vehicle and the driver is the very basis for competition, innovation and independent entrepreneurship.

Obstructing their ability to provide these digital products and services will have a detrimental effect on business success, free consumer choice, and ultimately, the competitiveness of the European economy.

The ‘Extended Vehicle’ concept is not a workable solution for the aftermarket. Equal digitalisation can only be achieved through an interoperable, standardised, secure in-vehicle telematics platform, where drivers are able to directly select and authorise the service provider of their choice. This was also the conclusion reached by the European Commission’s TRL study on “Access to in-vehicle Data and Resources”.

Time for the Commission to ‘set the wheels in motion’

A vote this week in the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport, on the EU Strategy on C-ITS, brings support for equal access to ‘in-vehicle data and resources’, ensuring a level playing field for the whole automotive value chain. Now is the right time for the European Commission to make the same commitment.

The “interoperable, standardised, secure and open access telematics platform” set out in the 2015 EU eCall Regulation must be used to introduce robust legislation within this Commission’s term.

The EU is at a watershed. For the first time in the history of the automotive sector, vehicle manufacturers have the capability – via the sheer technical design of their telematics system – to control entire vertical supply chains. Will policymakers allow a small group of market participants to recalibrate the mobility services model, to the detriment of competitive service providers?

This question will determine whether the market for Connected and Automated Vehicles will be innovative and competitive – or not. It will determine whether there will still be a landscape of vibrant, competitive SMEs in the future – or will Brussels tolerate an increasingly closed design of telematics systems, leading to the emergence of a few industrial giants with the power to dominate markets?

The European Commission must answer these questions. We call on them to ‘set the wheels in motion’ now. A solution must be in place before the exponential increase of connected vehicles on the road irreversibly impacts on our ability to compete.