Tom Blackie

The last few years have seen a gradual evolution of car interior technology, including high-resolution haptic touch screens, telematics and advanced navigation. We spoke to Tom Blackie, founder and CEO of VNC Automotive, a Cambridge (UK) based business whose tech can be found in over 35 million cars globally, about future integration opportunities as well as the challenges brought on by the current global semiconductor shortage.

35 million cars is quite a claim – how is that possible?

VNC Automotive has grown rapidly, establishing itself at the forefront of in-car technology and integration solutions within three years, but its roots stretch deeper and we have over a decade’s sector expertise.

The company was born from a management buyout in 2018, and the advanced entertainment and navigation technologies that we have since accelerated development of have been built on established principles and years of experience. The strategic focus that we have been able to apply has enabled us to work closely with a range of vehicle manufacturer clients, tailoring solutions to meet nuanced requirements and providing opportunities for differentiation using proven technologies. This has resulted in levels of demand for VNC Automotive’s expertise that have exceeded expectations. As such, our technology is already integrated within over 35 million cars.

Our ability to offer an end-to-end service, from proof-of-concept, technology delivery and production, means that we have quickly become a trusted supplier that understands how to balance customer needs, industry trends and consumer demands.

The solely automotive focus of the company over the last three years has enabled closer market analysis and a greater level of forecasting and anticipation. This has enabled us to optimise software development in line with customer demand at an extremely exciting time for the automotive industry – in-car entertainment and integration of smartphone and streaming technologies are at the cusp of a step-change moment.

What are the biggest challenges for the industry to overcome to achieve the advancement that you refer to?

If you step into an older car it is not the ergonomics that date it, but the screens and integration of technology. As the current and next-generation of highly complex, connected cars take to the roads it is vital that in-car technology continues to reflect the advancement in powertrain, chassis and aesthetic design. So, in the shorter term, the greatest threat to the development of truly connected vehicles is the supply of semiconductors relied upon by car manufacturers preparing for a shift towards autonomous driving and electrification.

There is a danger that this current restriction on semiconductor supply could leave consumers with already-dated, stagnating systems or even technology that is taking retrograde steps. We could see a situation where manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers are having to make do with what they have, rather than developing what they need or, crucially, what consumers want.

We are worried that this could lead to the development of a whole generation of cars that are quickly incompatible with next-generation smartphone and connectivity technology. This could even drip down to negatively impacting the development and roll-out of alternative powertrain vehicles and autonomous technologies.

And further down the line?

A lot is dependent on how the industry handles its short- to mid-term challenges. The recent announcement that certain manufacturers are exploring the potential to stream adverts into cars could prove problematic on a societal basis if users view the adverts as an unwanted distraction from work or disturbance to their viewing. The aim of an advanced rear-seat entertainment system is to put the user in control. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

I can envisage a point at which there is a fight over ownership of the in-car experience. Do manufacturers want to hand control over to phone software and service providers, or streaming companies, and how is customer data collated, shared and by whom?

The world loves its mobile phones. For personal, business and entertainment use; they even provide vital health services, especially during the pandemic. But they’re not aligned with vehicle manufacturers’ brand identity and clunky synchronisation or storage/display can dilute the appeal of an otherwise carefully crafted occupant environment. This is why we believe the opportunity to seamlessly integrate such technology into any market and industry-standard, as enabled by VNC Automotive, continues to represent such an enormous opportunity.

What is one of the most interesting sectors that you cover?

Beyond consumer vehicle, we already have a strong foothold in the emergency services sector. Other interesting markets for us are off-highway and agriculture, which represent fascinating opportunities. Areas such as crop planning and harvesting are already being streamlined by advances to GPS and connectivity, but autonomous functionality offers huge potential for this sector.

For example, remote connectivity to heavy-duty and agricultural vehicles is realising key benefits for manufacturers, especially for vehicles designed to work in potentially hazardous environments. VNC Automotive’s embedded connectivity solutions enable vehicles to be viewed on-screen or operated remotely, without the need for drivers in isolated farmland, extreme conditions or construction sites. This can boost productivity and reduce costs by complementing the existing reliance on driver skills, rather than stretching the supply and physical demands placed upon them. This boosts return on investment and lowers corporate liability.

What future technologies hold the most promise?

A significant opportunity exists around mobility as a service and the continued evolution of in-vehicle entertainment. This is where we can see huge strides being taken in the role of what is currently in-vehicle ‘entertainment’.

Ride-hailing and car-sharing is an emerging trend in the global mobility market, especially in fast-paced, tech-reliant cities. VNC Automotive can already enable vehicle screens to be quickly and easily customised depending upon its occupants’ needs – this can be personalisation of the driver’s or passengers’ experience with access to desired applications or media, but as the shared mobility model proliferates the potential is vast. The drive for reduced emissions and congestion will further promote this model and the ability to seamlessly utilise the vehicle as an extension of the workplace will be vital.

While the focus is currently on ensuring that those in the back of a car enjoy the journey through the integration of their devices into the vehicle’s infotainment technology, for business users this flexibility is just as important. Further development of these systems and the way occupants both integrate and interact with the technology will help prepare the ground for enhanced autonomous functionality: providing a seamless extension of the living space, enabling passengers to work, socialise, relax or even play the latest game is the pinnacle of how we see in-car experience evolving. I mentioned the potential for vehicles to provide a cinema experience and this could be the real home-from-home reality.

What impact do you see electrification and autonomous technologies having on the software that you provide?

While there is a limited crossover between drivetrain technology, infotainment and ambient controls, the ever-increasing number of screens in vehicles is good news for us. It enables a precise focus on optimising the most effective solution for each screen and the ability to customise and personalise content delivery to the driver and passengers.

Autonomous technology will move the boundaries of what is achievable in terms of the in-car experience, and we are already seeing more sophisticated, large touchscreens and advanced user interfaces being adopted by manufacturers of best-selling models. As the industry moves towards electrification and autonomous systems, the in-car experience must mirror the consumers’ view that these drivetrains represent the very latest technologies.

The final challenge is devising hardware that meets the rigorous requirements of the harsh automotive environment: you do not need to be an engineer to understand that vehicular conditions bear little resemblance to those found domestically. Temperature variance, noise, vibration, harshness (NVH) and moisture, for example, plus the lifecycle of a new vehicle expected to be well over 10 years, all challenge infotainment systems to adapt.

Augmented reality and the potential utilisation of any surface as a projector screen, therefore, provide a huge opportunity to future-proof the remotely updatable look and feel of in-vehicle tech.