Here’s why we need connected cars: Tesla was able to upgrade its cars on fly during Irma.

Two Tesla EVs charge at a charging station in a public garage in Palo Alto, Calif.
Two Tesla EVs charge at a charging station in a public garage in Palo Alto, Calif. TNS

Apple always knows how to pull off big events, as witness the unveiling of the latest iPhones, with the iPhone X emerging as the company’s bid for luxury smartphone status. What was missing in its recent fanfare over the $1,000 phone could be deduced by thinking about its pedigree. Ten years ago the first iPhone really did put smartphones front and center in high-tech development.

Today, a luxury phone may be eye-catching, but it’s hard to argue that it stands at the cusp of a revolution. Smartphones are quietly ceding their place to technology in the home and, most significantly, on the road. What will drive the biggest changes to our lives in the next decade or so will be the connections automakers forge within our vehicles.

I’m not talking about what you see on the dashboard. In fact, my view is that the fewer options for driver distraction, the better. The last thing I want to wonder is whether the car headed down the other side of the road is being driven by an indignant social media user about to vent his politics on Facebook. No, let’s keep drivers’ minds where they need to be, on the road.

But inside and behind the dashboard, our cars are becoming networked in startling new ways. A huge marker of the change came with the devastation of hurricane Irma. Barreling up the Florida peninsula, the storm forced cutting-edge automaker Tesla to upgrade its Model S cars to give fleeing residents more mileage on the highway.

Smart move, because with interstates clogged and gas scarce, more mileage could mean lives saved. But think about what I just said – Tesla upgraded its cars on the fly, by doing little more than changing the settings governing battery capacity in the Model S through its network.

It turns out that this model, along with the Tesla Model X, uses a battery that, at full strength, allows about 250 miles on the road. Customers who want to pay a bit less for their Tesla could buy reduced battery capacity, but the battery remained exactly the same. The difference lay in the computer algorithms telling the car how much battery it had to work with.

Upgrading, then, would really mean paying the fee to unlock the additional power. Or in the case of Tesla’s civic-minded hurricane relief, temporarily removing the software lock for all drivers in affected areas. It’s a temporary fix to get people through the storm, but it added a helpful 35 or 40 miles to each car’s range and doubtless helped quite a few drivers in distress.

We’re seeing the emergence of the connected car, checking in with its company’s network and available for upgrades as they emerge. And it is spreading well beyond Tesla to affect the entire industry, offering not just mileage tweaks but critical vehicle functions involving maintenance and safety. These aren’t luxury items – they don’t exist to be flashed around in social settings. They’re hidden networking features that will increasingly define how well our cars operate.

So in a year or so, when we’re all talking about 5G mobile connectivity, we will indeed wonder how such high-speed wireless will affect our phones. But carmakers will be thinking about diagnostics that can keep your car fit, to the point where companies like Delphi, a maker of auto parts, now says it expects the number of diagnostic data interchanges made by a single vehicle to reach 100,000 by the year 2020. It’s not just your phone that’s connected; it’s your entire car.

We’re bringing a software model to vehicles in ways we hardly imagined 10 years ago. Auto connectivity is far more than building phone features into a dashboard. It will increasingly involve car safety as an outgrowth of a kind of “autonet,” in which no dealer visits are needed for many upgrades and cars know what other cars are doing. The real elephant in the room, the driverless car, is clearly going to build on what the autonet is now creating beneath our hoods.

Are there security issues here? You bet, and we’ll have to face them, because smartphones are the last revolution. The next one is on the road right now, and it’s beginning to accelerate.