Remember when the first iPhone came out in 2007, marking the first real mainstream smartphone to hit the market? Fast forward 16 years and traditional mobile phones – by which I mean the Nokia 3310 (aka the Brick), the Motorola Razr V3 (or the flip phone) and the trusty Blackberry (who still remembers their BBM pin?) – feel like a relic of a time long long ago.

The automotive industry is going through a similar revolution right now. This was made abundantly clear at IAA Mobility 2023, which we attended with our H+K Germany colleague Alina Pfeufer on behalf of Qualcomm.

Now, to go back to the smartphone comparison, we would align the first iPhone in 2007 with the Tesla Model S in 2012 and then the Tesla Model 3 in 2017. These were the first cars to launch with an infotainment system that could be controlled on a single, user-friendly, touchscreen interface.

As with Apple’s detonation within the smartphone industry in 2007, Tesla’s separation from the pack caused a reaction – the impact of which could be felt at this year’s IAA Mobility.

Almost every carmaker – both traditional and challenger – had what has become known as a ‘software-defined vehicle’ on their booth. A truly software-defined vehicle goes beyond having a fancy touchscreen in the front of the car. Instead, it refers to a vehicle that has technology at its heart – or, as Qualcomm has aptly coined it, a Digital Chassis.

The best way to describe what that means is to talk about the Snapdragon Digital Chassis Concept Vehicle that was at Qualcomm’s booth. Featuring all of Qualcomm’s automotive technology, the vehicle represents a shining example of what a fully equipped software-defined vehicle could look like.

With doors that open at the touch of a finger, that smartphone feel is there before you’ve even sat down in the car. No sooner than when you’ve settled into the driving seat are you personally greeted by the car, before the vehicle automatically adjusts the seat position, lighting, and in-vehicle temperature based on your preferred settings.

Both before you set off and once you’ve set the wheels in motion, you have two options for controlling the in-car infotainment: touchscreen or voice control. This allows you to have a fully hands-free experience, so there’s no compromise on safety.

One of the most exciting features in the car, though, is the personalised multi-audio zones. While I’m sure most of you don’t travel anywhere without a pair of headphones, sometimes it’s nice to travel without having to plug in. The problem is, if everyone in the car decides to go sans headphones, you end up with a cacophony of noughties pop, rap, and a rogue podcast. Probably not a great mix. But that’s where the genius of personalised audio zones comes in. These allow all passengers within the car to listen to what they want – out loud – without it overlapping with what other people are listening to.

So, in short, that is what a software-defined vehicle should be capable of. And that’s without mentioning the personal reminders, based on your calendar, and the ability to make online purchases with secure, biometric security built in. Essentially, the software-defined vehicle should become an extension of your digital self, allowing you to leave home or your office, and continue to stay connected without picking up your phone – all while maximising safety and security.

With the speed at which the automotive industry is shifting towards software-defined vehicles, it won’t be long before they dominate the roads, putting other cars in the same “we actually used to use those?” category in our brains as the Nokia 3310 (excluding the game ‘Snake’ – that withstood the test of time).

All this shiny new technology didn’t detract attention from the larger question being thrown at the industry, though. What about the environment? A surprising spokesperson on the topic was Padme (or Natalie Portman, if you’re a Trekkie). Even more surprising was her talking about the “accessibility and sustainability” of modern mobility through the lens of driving her Tesla around L.A. This fell a bit flat – driving a Tesla down Melrose doesn’t exactly scream “accessible and affordable mobility”.

Natalie Portman aside, the importance of an industry focus on sustainability was visible at IAA, as EVs took centre stage at almost all exhibitor booths. Everyone was looking to electrification and decarbonisation – it was clear that the future of mobility is 100% electric and the next phase for most technology players, automakers and regulators alike will be the mass adoption of EVs. The clock is ticking for petrol and diesel cars.

There has been some discussion about how self-driving cars could help reduce the impact of driving on the environment. The extent of that ‘help’ is yet to be truly determined. However, almost as a teaser for IAA Mobility 2025, the show rolled out a self-driving car, which roamed around the event space without incident. This was yet another example of where the industry is heading, showing the progress that has been made towards a driverless future. It’s worth noting, though, that the car wasn’t without a chaperone, so there might still be a bit more road to cover before driverless cars reach anything approaching the norm.

So, while the automotive revolution might be a bit of a slow burner compared to the evolution of the smartphone, IAA Mobility 2023 showed that the industry is really starting to move through the gears. There will, naturally, be people who resist this change, mourning the loss of simple toggles and dials. The phone industry met similar resistance. However, there’s no doubt that this digital overhaul has been a long time coming for the automotive industry and it will make driving much safer and more in tune with our increasingly digital lives.