Telematics and Toyota-Ford: Test-driving the partnership

Telematics and Toyota-Ford: Test-driving the partnership

In a surprise and seemingly rushed-out announcement, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. said they would collaborate as equal partners on a hybrid system for light trucks and SUVs as well as on the development of "next-generation standards for in-car telematics and Internet-based services."

In an interview with TU, Jim Buczkowski, Henry Ford Fellow and director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering, stressed the preliminary nature of the announcement. Piling on the qualifiers, he said, "We have signed a memorandum of understanding to kick off a feasibility study, looking into potential areas of collaboration." However, Paul Mascarenas, CTO and vice president of Ford Research and Innovation, says his team is already actively involved in working with Toyota.

According to the New York Times, the rapprochement began in April when the CEOs of the two companies met by chance at an airport. While details are few, Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst with IHS iSuppli, says, "Other automakers may be wishing they had run into Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally at the airport. If they do the right things, it could lead to a lot of great things for the two companies—and they could leave the outsiders behind."

There may be a bit more room inside, though. "We haven't discussed additional partners,” Buczkowski says. “As we move through the feasibility stage, there may be opportunities for that."

What it means for telematics

In the telematics area, the collaboration likely will center on standards and enablers related to backend systems: How to move personal information around in a secure way. When asked if the two companies were looking to make these systems interoperable, Buczkowski says they're not that far along yet, but "We will see if there are standards that allow interoperability or maybe just best practices."

There certainly have been some big issues in Bluetooth and WiFi compatibility, says Roger Lanctot, senior analyst for Strategy Analytics: "Each OEM has to test all these apps, protocols and phones. It is a bit of a nightmare." Some exchange of information and learning could help both parties, he thinks. "This is going to be embedded within no more than three years, so maybe the thought is to lay some groundwork for doing things properly and achieving some economies down there," Lanctot says. Strategy Analytics analyst John Canali says it makes sense for there to be greater standardization at the back end, the guts of a system that consumers never see.

This is where the story begins to sound like GENIVI. "We can share the engineering and development work and free up resources to focus on the customer-facing piece,” according to Buczkowski. “We could proceed ourselves individually, but this is not an area where we will compete. We will compete in customer experiences." The GENIVI project for now is focused on the bottom of the software stack for the infotainment system, while Ford and Toyota will work on data transmission, but the approach is the same. (For more on GENIVI, see Will GENIVI speed up telematics development?)

The Microsoft connection

Somewhere behind the scenes lurks Microsoft. Is the software giant the connecting link?

Toyota Entune includes the Bing for Mobile app via paired mobile device or the navigation system, and the OEM will use Microsoft's Azure as the platform for its global, cloud-based data center. Microsoft is even more deeply embedded in Ford's SYNC, helping to design and engineer the first version. "Standardization around Microsoft's protocols and best practices is certainly convenient for Microsoft," says Canali. "Especially because Kia and Fiat are already on board, it suggests that future iterations of their systems would be able to take advantage of savings in the backhaul."

The announcement of Ford's Evos concept gives further weight to the possibility that Microsoft already has its fingers deep into the Toyota/Ford partnership. The lifestyle connectivity scenario Ford is touting, such as the car automatically adjusting your daily route based on traffic or resetting your alarm if a meeting is canceled, mirrors the ideas put forth by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the announcement of the cloud services partnership with Toyota.

Boyadjis thinks sooner or later the two OEMs will bring in Microsoft more directly. With Microsoft's foot in the smart home/home energy management sector, he says, a three-way partnership could tie electric vehicles to connected car services, a smart grid and the home energy management system. (For more on smart grids, see How telematics can help smart grids talk to cars; for more on home energy management, see EV telematics: Is home energy management the next big thing?)

Ford has mentioned chipsets in many interviews. Boyadjis thinks one potential question for the collaboration is, "How do we make wifi in-vehicle more aligned to what we need to do? It could go down to automotive-grade wifi chipsets."

Terrible idea, according to Boyadjis: "Really, they should draw the line in the sand and stick to working with standard interfaces like wifi, Bluetooth and USB and stay away from co-designing architectures. The architecture is one of the most proprietary systems in the vehicle today."

The partnership could also be good news for other software and apps providers, according to Boyadjis. "Anyone winning or hoping to win business from Toyota or Ford is really happy about this,” he notes. “A company like Airbiquity, ATX or a number of others that could get a contract with one of them have potential access to volume from both."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s thought leaders at Telematics Munich 2011 on November 9-10 in Munich.

For more on smart grids, head to PHEV/EV Infrastructure and Business Japan 2011 on September 7-8 in Tokyo and Plug-In Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Conference & Exhibition Europe 2011 on October 11-12 in Frankfurt.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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