When Cars Talk to Furnaces: Change, Complexity and the Internet of Things

What would it mean for your car to talk to your furnace? A few years ago, a question like this might have landed you in the looney bin, but not today.

Every once in a while, something comes along to help you understand the implications of some particular technology. People having been talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) for many years now, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I got my first real sense for how it might actually work over time.

Programmable Cars and Furnaces

Nest DeviceMost of us are familiar with the Nest thermostat, a beautifully designed little device with a wireless connection to powerful, cloud-based software – something I call a “service tether.” Nest gives you access to detailed thermostat usage data to help you analyze and reduce home energy usage. Nest allows you to manage your thermostat while you’re away from home through a mobile app.

DeviceSo, what about the car? Automatic offers a little device that acts as a service tether that connects to the onboard diagnostic, or ODB2, port that mechanics use to access diagnostic information from your car. It connects this port to your smart phone via Bluetooth signal, in order to communicate with its cloud-hosted software. Automatic gives you detailed vehicle diagnostic data as feedback to help you adjust your driving style to help economize fuel usage. It also uses a built-in accelerometer to trigger a crash report and automatically notify local authorities. It can also notify you and help you interpret “check engine” and other cryptic service lights via its mobile app.

What’s really interesting about Nest and Automatic is that both services have well-documented Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable outside developers to extend the services in interesting ways. Here’s where cars start talking to furnaces.

Connecting Services and Things

IFTTT, or “IF This Then That,” is one of those funky web services that not everyone knows about, and it’s really cool. With IFTTT, you can connect web services using a simple approach to basic programming logic. IFTTT users create connection “recipes” to enable web-based coordination like automatically adding new iPhone contacts to a Google Drive spreadsheet, or automatically updating your Twitter profile picture whenever you change it on Facebook.

A number of people are now making IFTTT recipes to connect Nest thermostats and Automatic-enabled cars to various web services. And, sure enough, some of those recipes entail using IFTTT to get Nest thermostats and Automatic cars talking to each other. Now you can have your car automatically tell your thermostat to run your house fan for 15 minutes when you arrive home or to turn on the air conditioner at home fifteen minutes after you leave your office.


Do we really need this kind of automation between our cars and our furnaces? Probably not. I raise this as an example, because it demonstrates how products from two different companies can be coordinated by customers in ways the companies probably never foresaw.

We are in the very early days of connecting up the Internet of Things. These are just our first, if somewhat awkward, steps. More compelling applications will inevitably emerge, and as they do, we will come to expect this coordination from all our things. We will soon yawn at what once would have seemed nothing less than magical.

The Cost of Complexity

The Internet of Things will inevitably warm its way into our hearts and homes through the allure of convenience. Its main obstacle is the draw its complexity has on our limited attention.

DaveA friend of mine was an early customer of Nest’s smoke and carbon monoxide alarm. Though Nest recently shut the feature down, the alarm originally had a “Wave” feature to allow users to turn off its warnings by simply waving their arms a few times. Just recently my friend experienced a false alarm with the system. He had received notice of the change, but in the stress of the moment, with the alarm sounding and a female telling his family ‘Emergency: There’s smoke in Jimmy’s room’, he found himself frantically waving his arms for a while before eventually figuring out how to shut it down with a screwdriver.

Things that work well only when they’re working well are a nagging, background drain on our attention. Even seemingly small changes to just the way things work add to this drain.

Few of us have the time or energy to stay on top of all the things that company product managers wish we would. From their individual perspective, these may not seem unreasonable – after all, we are benefiting from using their offering. But cumulatively, it starts to take a toll.

The unfortunate truth is that companies often foist the cost of change and complexity onto customers by doing things like skimping on user experience design and on customer support. We end up paying for it mostly through having to invest time and attention on labyrinthine online support forums or product support lines, through having to troubleshoot things that once worked but now do not, and by having to relearn how things now just work a little differently.

As more products gain online connections, are we headed to a world where all our things are in constant flux; a world of non-stop Windows updates – but for everything? And as our furnaces, cars and countless other devices increase their coordination through the Internet of Things, how will that added complexity increase the pace of that change and the demand for our attention?

Value Equals ServiceThe geek in me is actually excited that my car can now talk to my furnace. But modern life is full of conveniences that enslave even as they set us free.

To tap the full potential of the technological opportunity that is the Internet of Things, companies need to make sure they remain steadfastly focused on building real value for people, and that means ensuring that what they build is truly of service.


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