What CES trends mean for telematics

It's already been six years since Ford introduced Sync at CES, giving the world notice that the car was becoming a piece of consumer electronics as well as transportation. This year, as the excitement at CES was more about apps and software than the machines themselves, it's fitting that the biggest buzz in the autosphere were the announcements by Ford and GM that they would open their platforms to outside developers.

Automakers have been struggling to understand how to transform themselves so that they can sate the consumer appetite for apps. Now, Ford and GM are initiating developer programs similar to those that have made Apple and Android phones must-have devices. (For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps and Industry insight: The connected car.)

OEMs and phone-makers

In addition to Ford's software developer program that makes the Sync AppLink API available to outside developers, it announced the sexy OpenXC, an open-source hardware and software platform created by the R&D department to "unleash the power of the open-source hacker community."

GM, meanwhile, said its new flexible application framework enables a new set of APIs for developers, so that, eventually, drivers will be able to add apps and features to their vehicles after the initial purchase.

The Car Connectivity Consortium also kicked off a big push to lure developers at CES. In an effort to "saturate the global marketplace" with MirrorLink-enabled mobile apps, the CCC will hold MirrorLink DevCon at the 2013 Mobile World Congress. Now that MirrorLink is close to a standard, developers will be able to make in-car apps that are interoperable between enabled smartphones and automobiles.

Open to development

Erik King, vice president and division manager of the Mission Applications Division at CACI International Inc., applauded the announcements. CACI is a developer of software for military vehicles and other specialized clients.

"All these manufacturers have ‘rolled their own’ for the last 20-something years, starting with phones in cars," King says. "I'd say that they are in business of making automobiles. At some point, there needs to be a handoff of what they want to do and what the developer community at large could do. That's where the struggle is."

The advantage of working with the greater developer community, he says, is that the latter will come up with "tons of ideas the automakers couldn't think of themselves."

Steve Hilton, principal analyst for Analysis Mason, agrees: "OEMs obviously recognize that they are not app-centric companies. If they've been smart enough to recognize they need a little help, good. But the idea that any random person would develop an app that would run in the car is a little farfetched."

It's more likely that, despite the hype, Ford, GM and other OEMs will use third-party developers as farm teams, hoping to uncover some gems. Hilton puts it succinctly: "Most of the stuff they create is worthless; once in a while someone creates an Angry Birds.

Use your community

Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager, infotainment and HMI, for IHS Automotive, says that for automakers with developer programs, "It is now using your community to be creative and innovate. When something really sparks, move on it. If they find something that works really well, is pretty compelling and inherently fits into the business case and strategy, they move forward, work to finalize and launch it. That's where the controls will come in."

Developer programs will also allow automakers to provide localized infotainment services around the world. Early in-car apps like Pandora, Scout and TuneIn Radio required custom development, Boyadjis points out. With an open developer program, on the other hand, local developers will come to OEMs to get their localized apps on cars in their markets. "Make this application development happen in Canada, Brazil and China. That's how they can take the platform and make it worthwhile on a worldwide basis," he says. (For more on telematics in Brazil and China, see Industry insight: Telematics and emerging markets.)

Intelligent assistants

Another way that cars are getting more like phones is the interest in intelligent assistants demoed at CES. Everyone wants that Apple mojo and the ability to order out for tomato soup in the car. Hyundai said it would integrate Apple's Siri digital assistant that can process natural speech requests into its vehicles via its Eyes Free mode.

VoiceBox countered by, basically, saying its Voice Personal Assistant applications are better than Siri. It also made new customer announcements, including Chrysler, Dodge, Mazda and Maserati. Its architecture combines embedded and cloud-based processing and the company claims a conversational user experience.

Also in the clouds was QNX, which announced a new framework that provides in-car applications with access to AT&T's Watson speech recognition technology. The company said the cloud-based technology will offer more advanced natural language understanding and automatic speech recognition.

While offboard speech processing has its benefits in terms of power, it also has issues, Boyadjis points out: "It's fine, as long as it's a relatively quick connection. If it takes five minutes to connect up, it's no longer useful." While many expect onboard systems to become powerful enough to handle advanced speech processing in the car, he adds, "Whether it's necessary to bring it onboard is still up for debate."

Hilton sees cars evolving into "personal platforms," just like the phone is today. "Today," he says, "your personal platform is built around Apple or open source or Google. The car will be a platform also, and Siri or voice recognition is part of making that platform accessible and usable for M2M." (For more on M2M, see Industry insight: Telematics and machine-to-machine communications.)

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps and Industry insight: The connected car.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out V2X for Auto Safety and Mobility Europe 2013 on February 20-21 in Frankfurt, Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2013 on March 19-20 in Amsterdam, Telematics India and South Asia 2013 on April 16-17 in India, Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 7-8 in London, Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow and Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6 and Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich.

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

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