Wanted: A single interface for all in-car apps

Wanted: A single interface for all in-car apps

Someday, as coverage improves and hardware costs fall, fully Internet-connected cars may access applications running on remote servers in the cloud.

Until that time, though, the industry is seething with experimentation and innovation to determine how to make cars a somewhat open platform while ensuring safety and the usability of applications.

The connected car used to be an either/or proposition: either use the driver's smartphone for connectivity and as an application platform, providing a link to the car's display through Bluetooth or another connection, or run apps on the car's installed head unit. (For more the smartphone versus the head unit, see ‘What is the best way to deliver in-car telematics?’)

Ford's SYNC uses the former strategy, while GM's OnStar and Mercedes' mbrace use the latter.

A third option is terminal mode, the standard led by Nokia that provides an interface between a smartphone and in-car systems.

Terminal mode is operating system- and programming language-independent, and enables ‘remote desk-topping’; that is, displaying the smartphone's interface on the car's screen.

Leveraging the smartphone

But there's plenty of room in the middle, and already there are examples of another model that leverages the smartphone without giving up the car's control.
Frost & Sullivan calls this the hybrid model, while iSuppli refers to it as controlled/open.

According to Frost & Sullivan, the hybrid connected model will have an addressable market size of more than 5 million units by 2015 in North America alone, with Internet radio the most popular category of applications brought in to run on in-car systems.

“Ford enables Pandora et al. to work in the car, but only opens up a few fields for developers to utilize," says iSuppli analyst Mark Boyadjis.

For example, on the car's screen, drivers can see Pandora's information about a song's artist and genre, and control playing, pausing and skipping a track, all things that are already available and proven safe on car music systems.

Carmakers need to make safety paramount, especially in the face of growing concern about driver distraction. (For more on distraction, see ‘How telematics can help prevent driver distraction’.)

At the same time, consumers seem to demand the same rich applications and personalization in the car that they enjoy online and on the phone.

Boyadjis points out that Toyota has used a very locked-down approach to in-car functionality because of safety concerns.

"On some models, you'd have to pull over just to the change the air conditioner setting," he jokes.

Toyota has gotten backlash from customers, including organizations of Toyota and Lexus drivers who went public with their anger over the OEM's locking out of apps.

Meanwhile, Boyadjis adds, Honda for a long time has enabled drivers to access enhanced GPS information, such as points of interest or entering addresses while driving—without much evidence that it increased accidents.

The display-sharing solution

Display-sharing is a possible approach for a controlled/open HMI, according to Andrew Poliak, director of automotive business development at QNX, a provider of operating systems, middleware, and development tools.

In this approach, policy management by auto-makers and tier 1 manufacturers is the key.

He says that Apple got this right with its new iPod Out, while Nokia needs to address this for terminal mode.

“Apple has left some ability to the OEM to decide what they can display remotely from the phone, which is the right approach,” he says.

While best practices for enabling and displaying brought-in apps are still being developed, Boyadjis says that Ford SYNC is setting the example.

“They've said, ‘Our HMI has been proven safe enough for the public, so let's just enable application developers to port over their content into our system,’” says Boyadjis.

“I think it's a good solution, enabling a lot of content and functionality without a lot of coding on the part of suppliers or Ford.”

Adds Poliak, “OEMs are concerned about letting the display be taken over by a device. They will get over it the day Apple and Android and everything else will assume the liability for the distraction issue.”

For more on the future of the interface, order Telematics Update’s must-read ‘Human-Machine Interface Report’ today.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

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