Telematics software: How to cut development costs

Telematics software: How to cut development costs

As in-car applications and services become an important differentiator for OEMs—and, OEMs hope, a driver of auto and hardware sales—the industry is faced with a new cost center and a demand for coding expertise.

It’s still not clear how much more, if anything, consumers will pay for improved applications in the car. Therefore, keeping a lid on application costs is even more essential.

Some vendors have developed strategies—such as the use of open source, simplification, and pre-testing on consumer devices—that allow them to save money on development, testing and deployment.

Not re-inventing the wheel

Open-source software lets developers re-use code while building on it in innovative ways.

The GENIVI Alliance, for example, is developing a Linux-based architecture composed of core services, middleware, and open application layer interfaces, so that manufacturers and suppliers can concentrate on adding differentiated products and services on top of it.

GENIVI has selected MeeGo Linux as the operating system for its reference architecture.

Visteon has signed onto this approach, using MeeGo and GENIVI standards for its own RAPID, an infotainment and Internet platform including audio, consumer device connectivity, and rear seat entertainment.

“By using open standards like Linux, the theory is that we’ll save a lot of money by not reinventing the wheel,” says T.C. Wingrove, senior manager of innovation for Visteon.

“The differentiation starts to happen on top with the HMI and the different applications you create. That’s what consumer care about, so that’s where we want to spend our time.” (For more on the future of the HMI, see ‘Telematics: The user interface as strategic advantage’ and order Telematics Update’s must-read ‘Human-Machine Interface Report’.)

Wingrove estimates that approximately 60 to 70 percent of code for the platform will be re-usable.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Suppliers can profit by reducing costs for their own customers and simplifying the entire system, usually composed of parts from a variety of vendors.

Because Renesas provides the microprocessor that’s the foundation for the infotainment system, it’s found another way to lower costs: Move as much functionality as possible onto the chip, thereby reducing the total number of components the system needs.

Take, for example, backup cameras. “There’s a lot of software technology to take the information from the camera and convert it into a useful format for the microprocessor,” according to Paul Sykes, segment marketing manager for Renesas.

“We might take some of that technology and put it inside the microprocessor, so the camera can be directly connected without an external chip.”

Development cycles for the smartphone industry make the automotive industry’s look glacial.

But automotive suppliers can exploit this rapidity by putting a foot into the device market.

When TomTom acquired Siemens VDO, it created a separate automotive division out of a Siemens engineering center to directly service that sector while drawing on synergies with its consumer electronics offerings.

This strategy lets the automotive unit share development costs with its consumer division, and also allows it to get feedback on services and features before offering them for embedded units.

“We have our own call centers in Europe, the United States and Australia,” says Rik van Aken, director of marketing and product management, automotive, for TomTom.

“We can get feedback on what they like and dislike, and what works and what doesn’t.”

Moreover, TomTom can pretest its software in its consumer GPS devices, so that it works straight out of the box in the automotive space.

“We develop products in half the time and for half the cost compared to the traditional way of working for the automotive industry,” says van Aken.

Consumer feedback

Visteon also uses this strategy to recoup development costs while speeding iterations.

It released its TrafficJamCam, which lets drivers view live images from traffic cameras, directly to the iPhone app store.

With the wide use of smartphones to provide connectivity and applications to in-car systems, this app helped Visteon learn about how the phone might be used in the car.

More important, says Wingrove, it provided invaluable consumer research: “In the old days, we would have to develop a demo app, and then go out and pay a consumer research firm to recruit focus groups. Now, we’re able to put it on the portable device for relatively low cost, get revenue from the sale and also use it for consumer feedback.”

Because of Visteon’s expanding use of open-source software, the effort it takes to port applications from a smartphone to an embedded auto system is minimal, according to Wingrove.

Visteon has already released its third version of TrafficJamCam, with improvements based on direct consumer feedback.

“By the time we’re ready to put that application on the vehicle platform, we might be on the fifth or sixth software revision, one that gives consumers exactly what they ask for,” Wingrove says.

Selling the app for a minimal cost provides a bit of early revenue as well.

“In the old days, you would need to wait three years to start earning revenue,” Wingrove notes. “We don’t make a killing at this, but it pays the bills.”

If you are interested in this article, take a look at Content & Apps for Automotive USA.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

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