The Autonomous Car Race: Why Car companies Need to speed up

Germán León
9 min readFeb 6, 2019


Let’s journey back to 2007 when tech companies like Nokia and Blackberry (RIM) dominated the mobile phone ecosystem. At this stage, their billion dollar R&D departments and focus groups tested touch screens along every possible variable, and the results couldn’t have been more clear. People wanted physical keyboards on their mobile phones.

Of course, all that went out the window when the iPhone hit the market. What’s important to note here is that Apple’s landmark product launch didn’t prove Nokia wrong — when asked about touchscreens, people still thought they wanted a physical keypad on their phone.

The introduction of the iPhone can be considered as something of a tech world reboot of Henry Ford’s classic quip about the advent of the car: “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Just like Ford with the Model-T, Apple redefined the entire concept and the experience of the mobile phone. This single device represented a fundamental paradigm shift that brought to fruition an entirely new generation of industries and products that would forever change the way we work, play, create and communicate.

By the time Nokia and Blackberry realized what happened, the game was over. In fact, even as late as 2011, four years after the iPhone launch, Nokia was still breaking new revenue highs, but that was their peak. As their market share plummeted they threw a last ditch hail mary with Microsoft to develop the Windows phone, but it was too late. Android and iOS had already run away with the world’s developers, and Nokia’s once $100B mobile phone goliath was shipped overseas for pennies on the dollar.

Such is life. Hindsight is 20–20, but what if I told you that we are the eve of another technological shift whose impact will be even larger than that of the iPhone?

The Spatial Computing Revolution

Spatial computing user interface technologies represent the 4th technological revolution. Someone will come up with a better name for it, but for now here’s what you need to know.

Most of us have witnessed the first three modern tech revolutions in our lifetimes:

  1. The Personal Computer Revolution introduced Graphic User Interfaces (GUI) as a norm for interaction with computerized devices.
  2. The Internet revolution brought the ability to connect millions of data points, paving the way for a completely new kind of intelligence that would reshape our society as we know it.
  3. The Mobile Revolution put the power of the internet and online services in our pockets as mobile devices and applications altered user experiences forever with touch interfaces, location services, and real-time social media platforms.

An incoming fourth revolution will once again refine the way we interact with machines. And it will be even more multimodal, intelligent and versatile than its predecessors. The key to unlocking the full potential of next-generation spatial computing will be placing that computing capacity invisibly into the hands of people.

Here’s what you can expect from spatial computing:

  1. User Interfaces (UIs) will be multimodal (talk, touch, gesture, gaze, etc.)
  2. UIs will become conversational
  3. UIs will be able to “see.”
  4. UIs will go three-dimensional (3D)
  5. UIs will be intuitive
  6. UIs will give users more control
  7. UIs will become intelligent through AI
  8. Visual UIs will accelerate augmented reality (AR) innovation
  9. 3D UIs will accelerate virtual reality (VR) innovation
  10. Conversational UIs will accelerate natural language processing (NLP) innovation

Just as no one could have predicted the impact or scope of the internet revolution before it happened, the true extent of the spatial computing revolution is too large to even imagine today. However, there is one clear and dominant arena of society that spatial computing will hit like an asteroid, giving life to new industries and sending others into extinction: the automotive industry.

Why cars?

Transportation and communication are intrinsically connected. Moving from point A to point B is a big part of what makes us human, and the car is the first item since the iPhone that encompasses the human spirit in such an intimate way.

As a species that moves and communicates simultaneously, the incoming evolution towards autonomous vehicles will reflect those dual activities within an entirely new experience. For the first time, the car experience will place more emphasis on what happens inside the car, than the act of actually driving it. This means a complete consideration of how we use vehicles in our day-to-day lives.

With this transformation, we’ll move away from the concept of driving your car to a location, towards the idea of being driven by your car to your destination. In turn, this unlocks a whole world of activities and interactions offered by your car, which supersede the importance of actually operating the car. That said, driving remains a treasured experience to millions, one that presumably companies will continue to deliver in spite of the automation transformation. However, perhaps the act of driving will be relegated to a premium vintage novelty (such as that explored in the film iRobot), as opposed to that being the basic function that all cars offer today.

The new car concept

As the future of mobility and autonomous vehicles becomes an everyday reality, people will change the way they think about their cars as assets. Perhaps you’ll instruct your car to make some extra cash as an Uber while you’re at work, then pick you up at the office when you’re done.

It won’t stop there. Vehicles will become restaurants, traveling offices, day spas, hotels on wheels, and even mobile doctors, lawyers, and dentists who work in the back seat while their cars drive them their next house call. Just as the smartphone and app store gave birth to previously unimaginable billion dollar companies in the form of applications and their creators, the autonomous car will generate new industries that we can’t possibly even begin to conceive of today.

Many traditional companies and old players aren’t ready for such a drastic transformation. There will be winners and losers in the race to adapt to such evolution. The winners will be those who observe this paradigm shift and act fast to update their systems. The losers will be those who fail to take this change seriously and don’t seize the opportunity to make lasting, positive internal transformation, like Nokia.

When it comes to the user experience of autonomous vehicles, we’re dealing with an extremely high level of complexity. In light of that, there are two key elements that the industry will need to get right. The first is the transition from an owner-focused design to the idea of a shared space, simply an extension of your living room. The second element is the evolution from ADAS (Advanced driver-assistance systems) to ADIS (Advanced Driver Interaction Systems) where spatial computing plays a major role, and multimodal interactions change the way users behave. As such, New Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) will need to be built from scratch so the driver and passenger can leverage a combination of voice interaction, gesture interaction and touch interactions. Also, new elements in user behavior understanding will need to be accounted for: computer vision techniques and artificial intelligence systems will need to be integrated to continue to learn from the ways customers interact.

Just as the iPhone offered consumers a revolutionary user experience in 2007, cars will now need a new model based on the very latest user needs. Indeed, a recent paper on the user experience of on-demand autonomous vehicles has delved into automotive trends and how the relationship between vehicle and user will continue to change.

For those that are skeptical about whether such a radical change will take place, we can all be reminders that shift has happened before within the mobile industry:

Steve Ballmer, then-CEO of Microsoft, said of the iPhone that there was “no chance [it would] get any significant market share. No chance… It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.”

This makes an interesting point about how we perceive incoming technologies, and how we predict long-term success and market disruption. It reminds us that it’s difficult to tell which automotive company will be the winners of this period of drastic transformation. It may not even be a car company at all, just as Apple wasn’t in the mobile phone business before the iPhone.

Navigating the new era

As the spatial revolution comes to cars, clearly autonomous vehicles will need to work correctly, but that isn’t enough. Companies will also need to work fast to offer brilliant and seamless user experiences that meet growing and evolving expectations. To do that, they must understand the problem at stake, and address that as they incorporate new technology. Let’s take a look at a rundown of what it will take to win in the new era of autonomous vehicles:

First, it’s vital to understand one the problem regarding the role of human ability.

Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego outlines this problem as the fact that “we have unwittingly accepted the paradigm that technology comes first, with people relegated to doing the actions that the machines cannot do.”

He goes on to illustrate how this “requires people to act like machines, ever ready to take over when things go wrong. As a result, we require people to do tedious, repetitive tasks, to be alert for long periods, ready to respond at a moment’s notice: all things people are bad at doing. When the inevitable errors and accidents occur, people are blamed for “human error.” The view is so prevalent that many times the people involved blame themselves, saying things like “I knew better” or “I should have paid more attention,” not recognizing that the demands of the technology made these errors inevitable.”

“Over 90% of industrial and automobile accidents are blamed on human error with distraction listed as a major cause. Can this be true? Look, if 5% of accidents were caused by human error, I would believe it. But when it is 90%, there must be some other reason, namely, that people are asked to do tasks that people should not be doing. Tasks that violate fundamental human abilities.”

Secondly, we need to deliver products rather than concepts.

The automotive industry playing field is still tinkering with concept cars which are little more than PR gimmicks, while the US (Tesla) and China (Apollo, NIO, Byton) are already bringing these cars to market.

Although many automotive organizations are understandably skeptical, some are already dead; they don’t know it yet. Just like with Nokia, by the time the whole world wakes up to this, the battle will already be won, which segues nicely into our next theme.

Thirdly: don’t trust yourself, trust the market.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to multiple players in the industry that don’t believe change will affect them, while others realize that they’re woefully behind the innovation curve. I admit that it’s extremely hard to predict change, but the truth is this revolution is not 10–15 years away, it’s going to be on the road next summer.

Prediction: Tesla will be the US market leader in 2019

When it comes to car user experience, users point to Tesla as offering the best standard in automobiles. Recent analysis indicates that the Tesla Model 3 outsold small and midsize luxury cars in the US in July 2018, with a total estimated sales hitting around 16,000 vehicles.”(Of course, whether small and midsize luxury cars should be defined as the Model 3′s competition, as Tesla has claimed of late, is debatable.) The closest individual model to Tesla’s mass-market endeavor is the Mercedes C-Class, and even then, its July sales are estimated at just 6,029 units. The Model 3 is still untouchable when sales figures from multiple vehicles produced by the same company are added together. For example, the analysis expects sales of the BMW 2, 3, 4 and 5 Series to hit 12,811 at the end of July in total while customers will get their hands on 11,835 Mercedes C, CLA, CLS, and E-Class models. That all means that Tesla would have a 23% share of the small and midsize luxury car market in July, ahead of BMW’s 17% and Mercedes’ 17%.”

Don’t try to build everything in-house — it’s about jointly creating value.

Another typical mistake is to place yourself in competition with innovative tech startups. The winners of the autonomous car race will be the one that puts all the pieces together first, not the one that builds every piece from scratch. Therefore, it’s critical to focus only on what you’re good at and collaborate with 3rd parties for the rest. Invite relevant startups to participate in internal competitions, so you can build excellence in your product through collaboration, improve your own offering and stay connected to the innovation ecosystem.


We are on the brink of the fourth technological revolution of the modern era: the spatial computing revolution. The car will be the central protagonist of this revolution, as it combines a physical space, a moving environment that transports users, and a center for interaction. Industry leaders have been blindsided by transformative technological shifts in the past, and this paradigm shift will be no different.

The winners of the future of the automotive industry will be those that rapidly and effectively co-create new experiences through strategic collaboration with third-party developers, in order to reinvent transportation from the wheels up.

About the author:

German Leon is the Chief Experience Officer and Founder of Gestoos, a startup that focuses on computer vision and human-technology innovation for the automotive industry.



Germán León

I am the CXO and founder of GESTOOS, a startup that focuses on computer vision and human-technology interaction.