Telematics and the future of automotive apps

Susan Kuchinskas looks at the technology needed to expand the ways people interact with their cars

While getting a driver's license was an important rite of passage for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, many younger consumers just aren't that interested in driving. As John Waraniak, vice president of vehicle technology for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, says, "To kids, driving is the distraction." Fun to them is not staring at the road; it's consuming media and communicating with others.

For them, driving will get more fun, according to Praveen Chandrasekar, Frost & Sullivan's telematics and infotainment program manager: "There will be more content, more apps, more cool stuff like user interfaces. Today's younger generation isn't bothered by engine technology. Entertainment and social networking are more important than engine options."

But the automotive industry continues to struggle to keep pace with innovation and product refreshes in the software and consumer electronics industry, which feed consumers' short attention spans with continual updates and product launches.

Accelerated software development

Companies including QNX and Tweddle Group offer over-the-air updating capability, which allows automakers to freshen up their infotainment offerings. The Linux Foundation recently announced the Automotive Grade Linux Workgroup, which will provide a community reference platform that companies can use for creating products. 

Rudolf Streif, director of embedded solutions for the Linux Foundation, says this embedded Linux operating system could give automakers more flexibility: "There is no real open-source solution for an operating system stack right now.” 

The GENIVI alliance is working on an open-source infotainment platform that could sit on top of Automotive Grade Linux. With this embedded operating system, Streif says, "The automotive industry can already draw from a $10-billion investment that companies from enterprise computing and mobile communications infrastructure have made into the Linux kernel and Linux software components. This is a way to bring software development for individual applications onto an accelerated track." 

Automotive Grade Linux will compete with proprietary platforms; the advantage, Streif says, is that OEMs, tier 1s and the rest of the industry will no longer be locked into vendors.

"Software is and will be a major investment for the auto industry,” according to Streif. “With open source, you have access to all the source code, and you can build the system yourself. Or, they can hire another vendor to implement an initial solution, but if it doesn’t work out, they are free to take everything with them and go to a different vendor. It's a whole new game of competition."

That competition and flexibility, Streif thinks, will speed the development of in-car apps while potentially making it easier for mobile app developers to port their products to the car.

Infotainment meets diagnostics

Infotainment and social media get all the love and attention, but let's not forget their harder-working siblings: apps that can keep cars running well, report problems and keep dealers connected to their customers.

Keefe Leung, director of product management for Airbiquity, says, "Stolen vehicle tracking has become a requirement that auto OEMs have to offer. The diagnostic piece is where they can start enhancing that value-add. Just the surface has been touched right now in the industry."

There are obvious applications, such as alerting drivers and dealers when it's time for service or when a problem is developing. But Leung points out that in-car apps can also help automakers appreciate how people actually use their cars. They can gather real-world data to be used for optimizing not only standard performance, but also customizing the driving experience for individuals.

"Potentially, just as Apple or Google knows what types of apps you like and recommends others for you, I think the car will be another and very interesting experience, because it will be very focused on types of apps to enhance driving experience," Leung says.

What about Facebook?

On the Web, Facebook can connect advertisers with people who are likely to be receptive based on its Open Graph, a map of what individuals do, not only on Facebook itself but also on third-party websites and pages. Its App Center lets users sort through its thousands of apps, while Social Plug-ins let companies install Like and Share buttons on websites.

Several companies have announced limited Facebook integration into in-car apps, via either embedded device or smartphone connection. Could Facebook's targeting capabilities lead to interesting new models of automotive app distribution beyond the traditional app store?

Tweddle Group is one company that has integrated with Facebook, but CEO Andy Tweddle emphasizes that, to minimize distraction, only certain features are enabled: "Upon arrival, you can post your location -- but it's not giving a data feed to all your buddies.”

Tweddle, which powers Toyota's Entune, offers 12 services, including Yelp and OpenTable, as well as the usual suspects such as Pandora. But Tweddle says the company tailors them to suit the driving experience rather than providing voice activation to mirror the mobile experience.

Frost & Sullivan's Chandrasekar agrees that limited versions of popular apps like Facebook and Twitter will be enabled in cars, minus most of those companies' advertising and targeting bells and whistles: "What OEMs present today is a stripped-down version of Facebook. What you can see and do when the car is in motion is very simple stuff. There's no App Center or Game Center. These are far-fetched and potentially distracting while driving."

Chandrasekar adds that all the OEMs are doing is tweaking these apps so that they can be controlled within the car. But Chandrasekar thinks these apps will come into the car via smartphones, having been downloaded to the phones from consumer application stores. "Advertising from Facebook coming into the car is very remote," he says.