Q&A: Meeting the demands of a global telematics market

Q&A: Meeting the demands of a global telematics market

Laird Technologies is well established in wireless, custom-engineered products for satellite radio, GPS, cellular, AM/FM, Bluetooth and others. Now, the company is moving into providing M2M applications for vehicles. And Jim Ciccarelli is the point person. While many of Laird's in-house capabilities give it an edge in this sector, the company needs to bulk up its engineering capacity and look for more partners.

Ciccarelli's leadership of Laird’s M2M business is backed by 28 years in electronics design, operations, strategic account and product management, with previous work experience at Visteon and Ford, where he helped innovate body controllers, safety crash sensors and infotainment systems.

Ciccarelli spoke to TU’s Susan Kuchinskas about overcoming talent shortages in programmers and engineers for embedded software, failure of EVs to inspire new kinds of connectivity and services, and the need to push for standardization – or at least some rationalization – in global regulations.

First, tell us about your role at Laird Technologies.

I'm overseeing the transformation of our traditional antenna business to one that is more focused on full connectivity devices. We're very well-entrenched in the OEM business with antennas, and we are now rolling out part of our business into other technologies and other products, such as health and Bluetooth low energy. We cover not only the OEM space but also heavy equipment and fleet management.

Tell me about that evolution. Is it an extension, or do you have to create new business processes? What does it entail?

With any transformation, there is a certain amount of change required. We are experts in reception and antenna design, so we have built-in capabilities. In order to become a full connectivity product, we need to have adjacent capabilities, such as embedded software and embedded firmware, as well as some manufacturing capabilities.

I've heard that there is a talent shortage in programmers and engineers for embedded software. Are you finding that to be the case?

There is definitely a shortage in the Detroit area. Every embedded software engineer is hired at this point; it's very difficult to find talented people and tear them away from their current companies. We're having success not only through traditional hiring practices but also through dev partnerships. And we can also leverage our offshore sites in India and Germany to offset some of that shortage.

What is the opportunity you see in automotive for Laird?

The growth in telematics and wireless systems in automotive is going to be pretty significant in the next few years. Bluetooth is in most cars now, cellular is in maybe 20%, and Wi-Fi is still very low. The take rates on all those technologies will increase in the coming years and enable applications that people will buy into. I think those applications will center around a couple areas. One is entertainment – bringing people's experience from the home into the car environment. The other key one is safety. We see huge a growth opportunity there.

What about the electric vehicle sector? We've gotten some bad news in the United States lately. Last year, it seemed like EVs would inspire all kinds of connectivity and services. Is that fizzling?

What you saw was that electric vehicles were driving some of the "need-to-be-connected-all-the-time" mentality. Because they are new and because the technology is new, companies thought they needed to keep track of them and diagnose them all the time. From that standpoint, electric vehicles have been driving a lot of the telematics business to become more mainstream. Unfortunately, the value proposition of electric vehicles has not caught on in the general public, so the take rate is not high. But I think it's still playing a significant role in driving telematics.

What are some of the challenges, for Laird and for the sector as a whole?

One of the challenges in the overall space is the complexity of the different standards and solutions that are being legislated and regulated across the world. We are getting feedback from customers that they are looking for solutions that work for all of these different regions that they sell cars into. Right now, it's piecing together a number of different solutions without impacting their development process as much as possible.

What about development cycles? OEMs have difficulty keeping up with the refresh cycle for products and services in smartphones, for example. What's your typical development cycle? How fast can you get stuff out?

One advantage of our being in different markets is we do have to respond quicker in some customer environments, where our turnaround time is expected to be a year or less. It's allowed us to be a little more nimble in developing our products. From an electronics and wireless development standpoint, the important thing is to have solid development platforms in place that don't need to be created from scratch.

What are some of the important issues you think need to be addressed?

How we can drive more standardization and commonality between standards and regulatory bodies so we don't have huge amounts of complexity among vehicles. The industry needs to address this in a more proactive manner. It seems like there are more and more regulations going in different directions.

For example, in Europe eCall legislation is coming out. There are emergency roadside regulations in Russia, and a track-and-block regulation in Brazil. All require embedded cellular devices to be standardized, but all are somewhat different. So different technologies will need to be used.

This effort has to cut across industries. Cellular carriers need to be involved, OEMs need to be involved, and so do regulating bodies. [Another approach would be] that technology companies, tier 1s, and component and chipset suppliers could get together and say, "Given all these different regulations, is there a more straightforward way to make the technology transparent?"

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

(To listen to this conversation as a podcast, visit Podcast: Meeting the demands of a global telematics market.)

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on Sept. 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Brazil & LATAM 2013 on Sept. 11-12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan/China 2013 on Oct. 8-10 in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2013 on Nov. 11-12 in Munich, Germany, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, and Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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