From Desktop to Dashboard – Your Car is the New Digital Frontier

After several years of incremental developments, the world of in-car technology is about to explode into the consumer market. Just as the general public have adapted to managing and exploiting the myriad functions of desktops, smart phones and tablets, they are about to be faced with a similar plethora of competing technologies, standards and options in the dashboard of their car.

Historically there have been many proprietary and incompatible systems such as Toyota Entune, BMW Connect, Cadillac CUE, Ford Sync AppLink pioneered by the vehicle manufacturers themselves. These have seen limited reach due to the isolated scope of their application, and possibly the fact that these technologies are not core to the vehicle manufacturer’s original business. Collaboration and global standardisation is therefore key to facilitating wider adoption by consumers and support from developer communities. So there’s now a new hype war afoot amongst a variety of collaborations, for the “one true standard” for in-dashboard apps and cloud communications technologies.

The key players aiming to become cross-manufacturer standards are MirrorLink, the Open Automotive Alliance, and Apple’s CarPlay, with contenders from vehicle manufacturers including Ford’s AppLink, GM’s OnStar, Audi’s MMI and BMW/SAP.

MirrorLink was originally a Nokia (now Microsoft) product. It follows the 2nd-screen model in that it displays mobile apps on the In-vehicle-Infotainment (IVI) system. It is regulated for compliance and adopts an open standard maintained by the Car Connectivity Consortium, including car manufacturers: GM, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Volkswagen plus smartphone makers: LG, Sony, HTC, and Samsung. It has wide potential due to its openness and relatively low levels of regulation.
“2014 will be the year of MirrorLink.” Andy Lee, director at HTC

The Google-led Open Automotive Alliance includes car manufacturers Audi, GM, Honda, and Hyundai, is a partly-regulated Android-based technology stack.
It favours the in-dash model, in that it runs on embedded hardware inside the dashboard, with connectivity to a “BYOD” or consumer device. It has deep potential due to the tighter integration potential with the vehicle itself and the existing Android ecosystem, and is undoubtedly strategically poised to lead into other Google innovations such as their self-driving cars.

CarPlay sees Apple partnering with BMW, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Ferrari, Hyundai, Kia and Infiniti, to follow the 2nd-screen ‘mirror’ model for iPhone only (i.e. it’s not iOS in the dash). It is highly regulated by Apple – at launch, only three third-party apps are available (iHeartRadio, Spotify, and Beats). It’s more closed and limited in scope, but that’s not to say it won’t succeed; Apple is famous for successfully limiting its user-experiences to precisely what the user needed.

Ford’s AppLink is Microsoft SYNC-based with an entertainment focus and some basic telematics (speed, location). It’s a tightly regulated marketplace, with 60 apps currently certified. Indicative of the difficulty companies can experience in moving into a new product market, Ford are now struggling with managing the app store. Being manufacturer-specific, it’s obviously limited in scope, but one can imagine a pioneer such as Ford could resell this technology to smaller companies who do not have such a large R&D budget.
“We can’t keep up with building the bloody things,” Pim van der Jagt, managing director at Ford

The self-regulatory approach of these consortia builds upon the previous hard-learned lessons from mobile and web app store curation but extends this to more critical physical safety issues. Where as the current app stores “only” have to worry about malicious code and viruses, politically or racially dangerous content, device misuse or hackery, the new generation of in-car app framework providers also have to worry about not distracting drivers, not interfering with the vehicle, not exposing private information about location or vehicle security or encouraging dangerous behaviour. “Dumb-walking” into a lamppost while texting might be embarrassingly funny but driving into one is not a laughing matter.

Underlying technologies in these solutions range from Blackberry’s QNX (a solid aeronautic & automotive platform), Microsoft’s SYNC (based on Windows Embedded), the Linux-Genivi Alliance (GM, BMW, Intel, Delphi and others), Google Android, SAP HANA (a generic cloud PaaS) and the newer “Windows in the Car” (announced by Microsoft in April 2014) and QT (also used widely in aeronautics by Panasonic and others).

It’s acronym-lovers field day! But what is is actually going to offer the consumers?

Entertainment and navigation are the initial focus of most of consumer product offerings. This is partly because it’s an easy creative or functional sell which does not require a change of user behaviour. It also avoids many of the knotty safety, privacy and legislative problems which are limiting the more advanced features such as access control, remote control, telemetry and even assisted driving. Integrating with Spotify and TomTom or Google Maps will feel completely natural for many drivers, but watching your partner drive around is still spooky and fraught with potential issues.

A good example of what’s on offer is the Hyundai Blue Link system, launched in 2012 and claims to soon to provide access control and telemetry across their entire range of cars. Interestingly the features of the system are presented to the consumer as an extension to the support and assistance service packages, and are integrated with their existing call-centres and dealerships’ post-sales support.

The Hyundai features are therefore grouped in terms of their support packages, and some are optional extras.

Assistance: Emergency SOS, Collision Notification, IVR
Safeguard: Location tracking, remote slow-down/immobilise (policing), geo-fencing, curfew & speed alerts (parental control).
Telematics: Maintenance/health reports & alerts, alarm alerts.
App-based Access-Control: Remote Unlock, Sound Horn, Flash Lights, Start Engine.
Navigation: Points-of-Interest, Google Maps Directions integration

The “basic” system has web and proprietary iOS & Android app interfaces, plus in-car voice-control which seamlessly transfers to the call-centre IVR. Moving into the future, the 2015 Genesis model has a HUD and “AI” journey assistant, and even integrates with Google Glass. While all this will have the tech-heads salivating there will need to be significant shifts in behaviour for the general public to start adopting to such radically different driving experiences.

The fact that the more advanced features are paid extras indicates that once all manufacturers have finished giving away these cool features during the standards-war, they will be expecting to establish significant revenue streams similar to Google, Apple and Facebook enormous success through their extensible marketplaces of consumer experiences.

There are a surprising number of “killer features” in these new packages. The ability to get an instant message when someone prangs your parked car, or notify the authorities of your location after an accident are genuine advances in safety and security. Being able to constrain your teenagers to certain speeds or regions when they borrow the car is bound to solve old and create new common family arguments. Opening up the torrent of telemetry previously only available to mechanics will facilitate a huge range of online applications from performance monitoring to personal analytics and even gamification. Establishing an open app store will  encourage a whole new ecosystem of interesting creative inventions from a broad community that will ensure longevity and novelty in the driver experience while the in-car hardware ages beyond the usual one or two year life-cycle of obsolescence of the more easily exchangeable in-pocket technology accessories.

The arrival of new features en-masses may be the most radical shift in the automotive industry (certainly from the user perspective) for decades and the pace and breadth of the developments is already staggering. The hype has been building graually over the last few years, but now that it’s actually arriving in the dashboards we’re keen to see the opportunities that are emerging for digital agencies and individual developers and creatives in this once inaccessible touchpoint in the consumer lifestyle.


References and sources

A good CNET article BMW Feb/2014 launch article

BMW i innitiative

Genesis Google Glass integration announcement



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