Third-party apps: Give them more to work with

Third-party apps: Give them more to work with

In just two years, in-car apps have gone from a vision to reality.

Ford SYNC AppLink, the service that lets drivers use voice controls or steering wheel radio buttons to control approved apps running on the phone, now supports close to 40 apps. BMW ConnectedDrive includes Twitter, Yelp and Facebook, as well as an array of traffic, emergency and infotainment options. Audi connect reads emails and includes flight and train information.

Even the U.S. Department of Energy has gotten into the game. It recently announced winners of its “Apps for Vehicles Challenge,” a competition that tasked developers with devising applications that could improve safety, fuel efficiency or comfort by accessing vehicle data.

The two winners, who received $17,000 each plus free coaching from Ford, Google, SAE International, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the departments of energy and transportation, did just that.

Dash Labs presented a solution that provides real-time diagnostics and alerts via a phone app that helps the driver maximize engine performance, thereby reducing carbon emissions.

MyCarma, a division of CrossChasm Technologies, focused on an individual's driving patterns to predict the fuel consumption he or she would experience with different car models.

(For a look back, read Telematics: What’s next for apps and services, part I and Telematics: What's next for apps and services, part II.)

As we move further into the second generation of in-car apps, here are some winning strategies and best practices that have emerged.

Give them more to work with

While safety and vehicle security continue to make it necessary for OEMs to go slowly when it comes to opening up vehicle data to third parties, the more they can do so, the more interesting – and potentially differentiating – apps will arise.

GM is standardizing its infotainment platform across vehicle models to make it easier for developers, and it's been talking up plans to open up engine data, vehicle information and even access to OnStar.

As of July, it reported more than 2,000 developers registered for its App Developer Portal, which offers two simulated environments for creating and testing apps. GM Remote API lets developers create apps that interact with the vehicle via a phone, tablet or computer. Also, the company’s in-vehicle APIs let third parties use simulated vehicle information to access location data or vehicle diagnostics.

Key to attracting top developers is strong APIs, according to Brian Mulloy, vice president of Apigee Labs, a company that helps other companies build applications and application interfaces, as well as powering GM's developer portal.

"Understand that developers work in flocks,” he says. “Alpha developers are really good at puzzling through things. They appreciate honesty and beauty in programming. If the API is well designed and takes into account the needs of developers, those alpha developers will adopt that. As soon as they do, they create blog posts, code libraries and documentation to help other developers understand how to use [the API]."

As a developer community forms, it becomes an asset in itself, providing peer support and spreading the word.

(See also Telematics and apps: Identifying trends from the trendy.) 

Hack it

Hackathons that bring developers into a company's offices for all-night or all-weekend coding sessions have also become a popular way to get independent developers excited about a company's platform, and Ford and GM have embraced this strategy with good results.

Chris Peplin, a Ford research scientist in vehicle design and infotronics, and technical lead of the OpenXC program, says that the face-to-face interactions are as valuable as the work that's done. With developers in demand and so many new projects opening up every day, he says, "A developer that might be a perfect fit for OpenXC can fly away very quickly. Having some face time with them is a huge benefit."

At Telematics Detroit 2013, Nick Pudar, director of developer ecosystems, global connected consumer at General Motors, told attendees that GM is actively recruiting developers by participating in conferences oriented toward indie developers. "The developer's mindset is, 'If I can connect things, I will create great things,' – and we believe there is a place for automotive experiences," he said.

But a hackathon will fail when the company hosting it has a desired outcome in mind and tries to get attendees to work to an agenda, Mulloy says. "The challenge for car makers is to go from the status quo to being interesting platforms that encourage creative thinking,” he says. “They should invite developers to go bananas – it has to be more of an artistic experience."

An example of just how artistic a hacker can get is a recent Ford hackathon in California that resulted in an app-guided robotic arm that painted water-color images based on vehicle data. That event also produced an advanced taxi meter that takes into account the wear and tear on the vehicle. For example, the rate for a trip might be higher in a hilly area, due to extra wear on the brakes.

But the inspiration can come from anywhere. Ford is, for example, doing a research project with the Telematics Department of St. Petersburg Polytechnic University to study whether the models used by robotics systems on space stations to communicate with earthly monitoring stations could improve connected vehicle communications. Because these telematics systems blend different networking technologies to ensure constant communications uptime, Ford's researchers hope that studying them will let them understand which channels are best for emergency messages in a vehicle-to-infrastructure communications system.

Curb the limits

In addition to AppLink, Ford offers its OpenXC developer platform, a parallel research project that offers developers the chance to build apps that don't rely on SYNC. OpenXC represents an important strategy for engaging with outside developers: the removal of as many limits as possible.

Ford recently announced the first projects from OpenXC, which include Bluetooth HUD, a solar-powered head-up display, “Nighttime Forward Collision Warning” Android app, “Rearview Camera” Android app and a haptic feedback gear shift knob, which provides haptic and visual cues to help drivers optimize their shifting patterns.

Peplin explains that not every car has SYNC, so Ford wants to take a step back and see what developers might come up with if they could build apps from the ground up. OpenXC, he says, is "a research experiment to test out what people might build if they had more freedom to access data from the car. … We are not focusing on trying to find the killer app to make it ourselves. There will always be more and smarter people outside the company than in. You can't hire everybody."

Ford has found another benefit from OpenXC. Turning the car into a data source that's part of a distributed sensor network makes its data more useful and attractive to a broader group of programmers. "If we can get the Silicon Valley crowd attracted to the car as a data source, collect that data and make it useful for other applications," Peplin says, "maybe having cars on the road won't seem like such a terrible thing."

BMW works with few app partners but offers them more access to the car's systems, according to Phil Johnston, head of BMW Group AppCenter USA. The BMW Group Application Program allows selected partners to work directly with BMW to integrate software via a software development kit.

"Our platform is flexible; you can almost create your own in-car experience,” Johnston says. “A lot of competitors will have a limited experience and a lot of apps. We are more in the curation mode – premium use cases and a premium experience.”

Provide a channel

Developers enjoy hackathons for the creative challenge – as well as free pizza. But to get enough developers serious enough about an automotive platform, Mulloy says there needs to be a clear path from idea to in-car product. "Because of concerns for safety, security and the style of interface, you need to have strong review policies based on objective criteria," he says.

OEMs should steer clear of subjective evaluations, such as not seeing a need for a particular app. Ideally, he says, anyone should be able to register for a developer portal and gain access to the software development kit and sample code.

BMW's channel is based on inviting a limited number of app makers to work directly with BMW as partners. "The mentality is very different," Johnston says. "These are mutual agreements versus a supplier relationship. We both bring to the table equal effort in various forms."

Mulloy says that because of concerns for safety security and the style of the interface OEMs need to have strong review policies based on objective criteria. "Hackers don't want to be responsible for physical safety,” he says. “They want the car company to be responsible for that."

Asif Naqvi 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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