App challenges: driver distraction and software viruses

  • 16-Mar-2012 05:00 EDT

Delphi’s systems can provide alerts to redirect driver attention when unsafe conditions are detected.

As smart phones become a mainstay in the strategies throughout the infotainment industry, suppliers are racing to create techniques that let drivers use apps safely. This effort works on two levels: minimizing distraction and ensuring that apps don’t carry viruses that impact the vehicle.

Automakers are also taking various paths to bring apps into the vehicle. They are developing their own programs and partnering with app providers. They’re also devising strategies that let smart phone apps integrate with in-vehicle infotainment systems.

A common focus for all these programs is to ensure safety in an era when driver distraction is a major concern. At the same time, these efforts must focus on apps that drivers will want to use.

“It’s not a question of having thousands of apps in cars, it’s which ones make the most sense to use while driving, and how to do that safely,” said Thilo Koslowski, Research Vice President, Gartner Inc. “There’s a strong appetite to use apps in a car, but I’m not sure most consumers will want that many apps in their cars.”

Tier 1s are employing many strategies to reduce driver distraction. One of the most common steps is to use voice control for apps so users don’t have to look at screens and actuator buttons. Some are going a step further by monitoring drivers, alerting them when their attention shifts to activities inside the cabin instead of on the roadway.

Earlier this year, Delphi demonstrated a monitoring system that watches the driver’s eyes, alerting them when they focus too long on a center stack monitor or cell phone. The system also monitors the driving situation. Certain functions will be kept in the background if driving conditions require the driver’s full attention.

“In a low workload area, we provide a dialog box that gives drivers a choice of whether they want to hear an incoming message or not,” said Doug Welk, Chief Engineer, Advanced Entertainment & Communication at Delphi. “In a high workload area, there will only be a tiny indicator when the message comes in. When the vehicle transitions from the high workload period, we’ll put the larger dialog box back up.”

When apps come from third-party suppliers, automakers must expand their view of safety to include safe integration of apps with vehicle systems. Automakers don’t want vehicle owners to download third-party apps that could carry viruses or impact vehicle systems.

“The first step is to understand the risks that come when you have an open system,” Welk said. “It’s not difficult to prevent people from downloading apps onto the vehicle, Apple won’t let you get apps from outside iTunes unless you do some hacking. Automakers can do that and make it more difficult to hack.

Many apps will be allowed to use some vehicle resources. Apps running on smartphones may use the vehicle’s displays and speakers. Some may be allowed to pull information such as vehicle speeds. There must be some sort of firewall to prevent them from impacting vehicle systems.

“With apps on a smart phone, you might be able to replicate the screen on the center stack, but no part of the app actually executes on the car,” Welk said. “There are points of access, such as the USB ports, where you still need virus protection, but there are known technologies for dealing with that. You can do whitelisting so certain tasks won’t execute.”

Automakers are expected to set up rules for third-party app developers. This will make it simpler for them to develop software that can be used safely in the vehicle.

“We’re now starting to see carmakers set rules for apps that are intuitive and can be used safely,” Koslowski said. “There will be interest in setting rules on an industry level so app makers are not changing things company by company. If rules aren’t set industry-wide, it will be more difficult to attract companies to write apps for the automotive environment.”

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