Telematics and future-proofing strategies

Telematics and future-proofing strategies

For most technology companies, the future is now. Except, that is, if you’re a carmaker, in which case the long process of designing and manufacturing a car and its head unit makes it virtually assured that, by the time a vehicle arrives in showrooms, its telematic bells and whistles will be, in the best of circumstances, nearly out-of-date.

The challenge – how to “future-proof” vehicles so their systems remain useful and relevant for the decade-plus life of a car – is one both Detroit and Silicon Valley have started focusing on more intensely as customers have become more demanding and expectant.

And it is one that the cycle of auto development is very poorly suited to address, especially by automakers forever seeking ways to minimize costs and maximize retail margins.

“Five years ago, you probably had a 2G modem in cars, if that,” says Bob Johnson, chief service and information technology officer for Sprint. “You probably didn’t have Bluetooth connectivity, and the processing power on the head unit probably was not sufficient to handle media. So those cars are already far out of date. You really gotta make sure the automotive manufacturers are building these head units in such a way with an embedded connectivity that will support the streaming media and things on the horizon.”

More contemporaneously, examples abound of systems seen as cutting edge on the drawing boards that fell flat by the time they rolled off the line.

Cadillac, for one, has taken plenty of criticism for the slowness of its system, CUE, and provided a software update at dealerships to improve some performance issues. Similarly, Ford has been plagued with telematics complaints from a sometimes inept SYNC voice recognition system to MyFord Touch’s sluggish touchscreen responsiveness and smartphone pairing problems that resulted in an August over-the-air software update.

Pland ahead

The answer, experts say, is deceptively simple: Install the fastest processors available as well as multiple high-memory chips, and then plan for over-the-air software updates. It’s the will to make it happen that may be more of a challenge.

Automakers “want to have the lowest production cost they can, but future-proofing means you must put in some extra memory and a faster processor,” says Egil Juliussen, research director analyst at IHS Automotive. “Those are the two things that are your best insurance for future-proofing, but almost nobody is doing that.”

Not “nobody,” but those who are can be seen as key innovators.

Audi, for instance, is deploying the NVIDIA Tegra Visual Computing Module system, essentially the most powerful processor available, on modular chips that handle different in-car functions. That is, the motherboard may mastermind the predictable, unchanging tasks of the car’s technology infrastructure, but other more powerful chips can manage other functions that can be determined later in the manufacturing process or that can be customized to the car line or the buyer.

(For more on this, see Blurring the line between cars and consumer electronics and Viewpoint: How mobile technology is acclerating the auto industry.) 

Keeping up with latest innovation

From the advent of telematics, the pace of innovation and trends have vexed car makers, says David Jumpa, chief revenue officer of Seattle-based Airbiquity. Jumpa should know. Airbiquity has worked for years with OEMs and app makers to modify apps for in-car performance and is involved in the telematics systems of nearly 24 million vehicles worldwide.

“For the first launch of smartphone or embedded integration, some of these OEMs were headed to include MySpace as part of that service,” he recalls. “By the time those vehicles were about to launch, MySpace was going out of business. That’s when we said, ‘We can’t have that happen.’

"The head units have to be flexible enough and dynamic enough that the services need to be enabled in the Cloud. If the customer has connectivity, then we control that connectivity from the Cloud. Whether that connectivity is a smartphone, a feature phone or an embedded device, we wanted to control that from the Cloud. That’s how we can future-proof what may be coming.”

Yet some believe the future is a bit clearer now because some of the key, universal technologies – Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS – aren’t likely to undergo any particular transformation. What is bound to increase exponentially, though, is the demand for data, Johnson says.

“That’s going to require a fat data pipe and processing power on the head unit that probably isn’t even there today,” he says. “We need to work on what those business models and value propositions are going forward so that automakers and head unit manufacturers can put the technology in cars.

"If you have a dual-core or quad-core processor in the head unit, you’re going to be well-poised to go the next five or 10 years and to be able to be upgraded over the air. Five years ago, I don’t think they were thinking in those terms because they couldn’t tell what would be the future of connectivity. Now we pretty much know.” 

The wild card: Driverless vehicles

One key dissenter, however, is Andy Gryc of the Ontario, Canada-based in-car software firm QNX. The coming age of autonomous vehicles, he says, will have massive but unpredictable impacts and likely will require entirely new ways of communicating with vehicles. 

“Telematics itself will have to really explode,” Gryc says. “The autonomous driving experience will become reliant on telematics much, much more heavily because they'll have the ability to integrate a lot of that stuff into the algorithms that are planning routes, deploying vehicles, actually managing city-wide fleets of vehicles. A lot of that stuff eats a huge amount of data, so I actually see telematics systems pretty much exploding.”

(For more on the future of autonomous driving, see The autonomous car: The road to driverless driving.) 

For the moment, though, carmakers haven’t even agreed on a model for car connectivity. GM, for instance, embeds modems in its cars in part because of its relationship with OnStar, which needs to be in constant communication with the vehicle. Ford’s gone the opposite route, assuming that drivers and passengers will bring the connectivity from their devices and that the car can use it via Bluetooth. Experts see advantages to each way, with most recommending enabling both approaches.

Relying on Bluetooth connectivity means that speeds can be improved by upgrades from the phone and the wireless carrier, not the head unit. “Say I’ve got a Ford F-150, and when it was shipped, LTE didn't matter," Gryc says. "But I’ve got an LTE phone, so I can use the LTE phone for the connection. That's one of the positives."

Meanwhile, the constant connectivity of embedded modems permits manufacturers to continuously collect and transmit data that can improve driver experience and car performance. 

Physical hardware upgrades

What doesn’t seem realistic, at least for now, is a physical hardware upgrade after the car is sold, observers says.

The closest anyone currently comes to that is PSA Peugeot Citroën, Juliussen says, with a USB plug-in from Mobile Devices that provides an external microprocessor and that can add a range of applications to the vehicle. With that, the driver “can get some functionality into the car that can be changed and upgraded. It's not a bad idea. It shows what you can do with a plug-in module that would be possible in the future.” 

One frustration for observers is that the cost of installing the most advanced chips and processors isn’t even that high. Juliussen estimates it might add only a few dollars to the cost of the vehicle.

“In three to five years, they might be smart enough to figure out it is worth the extra money,” he says. “But who knows? The luxury manufacturers are most likely to do it because they know their customers can afford it. You know that, as the apps become more complex, it will take more processing power. That always happens. You need more speed. It shouldn't cost more than 10 bucks. OEMs only look at it strictly from manufacturing costs. You must look at it from a customer happiness standpoint. Somebody basically has to take the first step. If customers are happy and the automakers find that out, the other ones would follow.”

Steve Friess is a regular contributor to TU. 

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Munich 2013 on Nov. 11-12 in Munich, Germany, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco, Consumer Telematics Show 2014 on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas, Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2014 on March 12-13 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Content and Apps for Automotive Europe 2014 on April 8-9 in Munich, Germany.

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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