Telematics: To embed or not to embed?

As the connected car moves from concept to consumer requirement, a variety of methods are being considered for data delivery. In vehicles equipped with an embedded system, “it’s all included in a black box somewhere in the car,” explains Luca Di Ambroggi, senior analyst for infotainment at iSuppli.

This approach is backed by the European Commission, which has selected it as the means to provide eCall emergency alert services. When the system goes live (currently slated for first quarter 2015), cars using smartphones for connectivity will be left behind.

Several government and OEM tests have revealed that sometimes after a car accident, the driver’s mobile phone is no longer in the vehicle, or at the very least no longer functioning properly, “so that’s not the best way to push the [accident alert] button,” he says. (For more on eCall, see Has eCall’s Moment Finally Arrived? and The impact of eCall on fleet telematics.)

Di Ambroggi also notes that embedded systems have the most sophisticated, and therefore safest, HMI. “Alerts are reachable by the driver in an easy way, within arm’s distance.”

Troed Sangberg, director of research for Sony Ericsson, agrees that an embedded platform in many cases offers a superior user experience. But he adds that many of the services duplicate existing solutions drivers can get through their smartphones.

He believes some insight can be gained from the mobile phone world, where carriers for a time planned to “certify applications and offer them through their own branded stores,” he says. But this plan failed because “there was a much wider developer base to be gained from aggregating at the platform level instead.”

Sangberg also notes the related challenge of “speed of innovation.” Although an OEM might be able to develop a proprietary solution that will contain the most-needed features on the market at the moment it is released, “it becomes immensely expensive to try to keep up with all the developments on open platforms,” he explains. (For more on app development, see Telematics and app development: The advantages of open innovation and Special report: Telematics and apps.)

For this reason, he adds, Sony Ericsson has opted for Android-based products. But he sees competition between embedded platforms and smartphone-based systems for years to come.

An embedded system may also be more costly for users. “The business model is not just a one-time payment,” Di Ambroggi says. Drivers “also pay monthly or yearly for associated services.”

However, in Di Ambroggi’s opinion, it all comes back to eCall and the “catalyst function” that will have for telematics in general, beginning in Europe and likely spreading to Russia, Brazil, and even the US. If embedded access to eCall is required, OEMs are likely to see what other functionality they can offer via those black boxes. (For more on embedded solutions, see Telematics and the ‘built-in’ vs. ‘brought-in’ debate.)

The Smartphone Connection

With smartphone-based car connectivity, it’s important to note that “we almost always mean using a bigger screen in the car together with other forms of input/output devices, such as buttons on the steering wheel and the car speakers,” Sangberg explains.

Although driver distraction can be an issue, he believes HMI is making great strides in this application. “The consumer will always have access to yet another form of smartphone-based system,” he points out. Today, drivers may be holding their phone in their hand or putting it in a third-party docking system.

“If we were to, due to driver-distraction worries, offer a watered-down experience, the consumer might simply opt to use what they already have,” Sangberg says. (For more on driver distraction, see DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity, What DOT’s new distraction guidelines mean for telematics, and Distraction guidelines as a telematics business opportunity.)

Sangberg cites the biggest benefit of a smartphone approach as avoiding duplicate services. Instead, the apps consumers already subscribe to are available in their vehicle as well. And more than just music and navigation, these services are “becoming more and more intelligent,” Sangberg says. “By using the same device, the consumer will have access to all that aggregated specific knowledge to help the full system make the best possible recommendations.”

But the challenge lies in standardization, he says. Mobile phones are perhaps the most innovative platform on the planet—but there are several platforms. “There’s a clear risk that in trying to create a platform-agnostic layer on top, some of that speed of innovation will be lost,” according to Sangberg. (For more on standardization, see Telematics, smartphones and the future of connected infotainment and How to avoid an in-car format war.)

Di Ambroggi emphasizes safety. Will a mobile phone company care if their product doesn’t perform appropriately, because it’s broken or too cold or out of battery charge, after an automobile accidentand may not be eCall-compliant in the first place?

“An OEM can brand an embedded system,” Di Ambroggisays. “Then they have the liability.” Nevertheless, he concedes that, even after 2015, there will be a lot of drivers who don’t bother with eCall. It’s likely that apps will be developed to protect or assist drivers who have been in an accident. At the middle range of the market, “our vision at iSuppli is that the smartphone will be king,” he says.

The cloud

“Instead of another system, [the cloud] is really an advance, a step forward for both embedded and mobile systems,” says Di Ambroggi. In the next generation of technology, the cloud will offer many more services and capability, he predicts. (For more on the cloud, see Telematics and the cloud: Building the business case, Telematics and the cloud: 4 keys to in-car offerings, and Telematics and cloud computing: Hey you, get onto my cloud!)

Sangberg agrees that cloud-based systems, in which much of the content served in the vehicle is stored elsewhere, have potential, particularly in terms of Web-based HTML5 native development for services and apps that would appear the same on home computers, smartphones, and in vehicles. But he also notes that radio spectrum remains a limited resource, especially while in motion. “It’s likely that a good user experience will still need to cache a lot of data locally,” he says.

Di Ambroggi agrees that coverage, be it cellular or wifi, remains a challenge. Particularly in Europe, some sort of affordable unlimited data plan is needed from mobile carriers, and the debate over network speed complicates matters as well. (For more on data plans, see Telematics and the search for a universal data plan, How to monetize the telematics ecosystem and Telematics and the value of data.)

However, once these details are sorted out, the cloud will offer an upgrade for traffic and navigation services, which could be connected to a huge, continually updated database that would include the granular data essential for eCall, notes Di Ambroggi. He cites the recent acquisitions or partnerships between Internet radio services and tier 1s, such as Harman and Aha, as another indication of the cloud’s bright future.

In addition to benefits for users, Di Ambroggi sees cloud-connected cars as a boon for OEMs as well. Collecting data and feedback from connected vehicles, such as GM has done via OnStar, can save money by identifying problems early and keeping maintenance on schedule.

But the best thing about the cloud, Di Ambroggi says, is it means the car’s system is always updated and ready. Maps, software, and databases will be kept current from afar, not perpetually upgraded in the vehicle.

Although it may take some time, the cloud has a place in the next generation of telematics. OEMs and other invested parties understand that whatever connected car solution they choose, “it needs to react swiftly to new developments and always feel updated,” Sangberg says. “That’s a future we’re both looking forward to and actively researching in.”

Jessica Royer Ocken is a regular contributor to TU.

For more all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics USA 2012 on September 5-6 in Chicago and Telematics Munich 2012 on October 29-30.

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

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