While the Internet of Things (IoT) has been a hot topic in the tech world for some time now, people are only now beginning to talk seriously about the concept’s impact on the everyday lives of normal people. It’s a commonly quoted stat in blogs across the internet, but it definitely bears repeating: Gartner expects there to be 26 billion connected units installed by 2020 – and this doesn’t include smartphones, tablet computers or PCs.

The research firm’s stats do, however, cover all kinds of normal items that people wouldn’t usually associate with wireless connectivity – think fridges, alarm clocks and home security systems. Its experts are also touting the automotive industry to be heavily involved in this shift, saying that 80 per cent of all new vehicles will come with wireless capabilities by the end of 2020.

Manufacturers will only adopt new technologies on such a scale if they fit in with drivers’ needs, so why exactly are connected cars so great?

Ultimate convenience

The digital revolution has impacted human life to such an extent that most people now depend on their mobile devices every day. Banking, shopping, health checks and product research can all be carried out from the comfort of the five-inch screens in our pockets, and expectations are growing as technology improves.

All of the apps used to complete these activities have one big thing in common: they’re designed to boost convenience – something that every car-maker on the planet strives to provide for motorists. It makes perfect sense, then, for cars – one of the most expensive items the majority of people will use on a daily basis – to offer similar benefits.

Increasingly, we’re seeing manufacturers taking advantage of smartphones and their popularity. Apps now exist that allow drivers to remotely check oil levels, battery life and even the location of their vehicles. It’s also possible to unlock doors and even operate climate control systems from anywhere in the world. None of this is possible, though, if the vehicle doesn’t have wireless capabilities.

Endless entertainment

Technology’s impact on the entertainment industry has been colossal. Take music, for example. While the evolution from vinyl to MP3s and streaming has involved plenty of change, it’s been a long time since the way people listen to music was completely turned on its head. No longer do we obtain physical items and play them using dedicated machines – instead, most people stream from web-based services like Spotify, or at least from our own digital collections in the cloud.

In the same way that automotive manufacturers followed music technology from cassette to CD and CD to iPods, wireless streaming has to be the next obvious step if motorists are to continue enjoying a soundtracked driving experience.

Harvesting data

With cars able to connect to a wider IoT-type network, data-harvesting potential is huge. In the same way that retail businesses collect and analyse information on their customers in order to better meet their needs, automotive manufacturers will be able to learn more about the people who buy their products and how exactly they use them. Not only will this help development teams to improve products in the long term, it could also allow the accurate predicting of future problems – making services and repair work significantly more efficient. If, for example, if data indicates that a driver has been heavy on their vehicle’s brakes, it could be possible to order the appropriate pads, ready for the next servicing appointment.

The harvested information could even be used to help governments handle their road transport networks more efficiently. In a discussion at 2014’s South by Southwest (SXSW) event, Scott Lange, the creative director of Ford-partnered Team Detroit, suggested that it’d be possible to identify developing potholes before they cause any damage or accidents simply by remotely monitoring suspension activity.

He also claimed that meteorologists would be better positioned to track weather activity if they knew when motorists were turning their windscreen wipers on and off. It all sounds simple but these developments could have massive benefits.

The challenges

The future looks extremely bright for the connected car market, and it seems inevitable that Gartner’s predictions will come true – maybe even sooner than 2020. As with any technological shift, however, there are obstacles to overcome.

First, the development cycle of the average car is around five times longer than that of a standard smartphone, tablet, computer and other similar devices. This means the markets are likely to always be out of sync with one another. When significant new features are introduced to mobile handsets, it’ll take time for automotive manufacturers to catch up, causing interoperability issues.

Next, it’s not quite clear how services will be sold and paid for. It’s likely that carmakers will be required to forge close relationships with mobile firms, in the same way that General Motors has started working with AT&T in the US. Then there’s the challenge of convincing drivers to accept extra charges on top of the thousands they’ve already just spent on their vehicle, just to get the most out of it.

Lastly, the shift will require plenty of change on the sales side of things. Dealerships will need to be more tech-minded as they’ll be required to sell each vehicle’s computer credentials to interested customers. This could even spark a skills gap.

It wasn’t long ago that mobile phones could only be used to send texts and make calls; nobody back then could’ve accurately predicted that they’d pretty much become extensions of the human body. The same could well be true for connected cars. As Mr Lange puts it, these ‘smart’ vehicles are essentially “the biggest and greatest wearable devices we have.”