Open coding coming for car infotainment apps

  • 16-Jan-2013 02:12 EST

Tirrell Payton, a developer, demos his new Kaliki spoken-word phone app using Ford Sync at CES.

Nowadays the features and capabilities of the dashboard infotainment system in a new car can be as important to a buyer’s purchase decision as the number of seats or its handling characteristics, safety systems, or engine power. Car connectivity is especially critical to younger, so-called millennial car customers who were raised on smart phones, tablet computers, and the Internet.

The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showed that U.S. automakers have fully absorbed the message. Both General Motors and Ford contingents emphasized their company’s efforts to deliver more flexible digital electronics and display systems that inform, entertain, and serve motorists better in the simplest, safest, and cheapest ways possible.

The Motown competitors reported that they are focusing on expanding the available app libraries of Sync and MyLink respectively, which are still meager. For safety sake, none of the apps would involve moving images that might cause driver distraction.

“Seventy-five percent of smart phone owners believe that it is important to connect their smart phone to their vehicles,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Vice President for Engineering and Global Product Development at Ford at the show. “But smart phone users are twice as likely to use their phone while driving,” thus creating a hazard. Two-thirds, he continued, think that hands-free voice control is critical to safe use of car infotainment services.

New kinds of apps

Although the three basic categories remain news/information, music/entertainment, and navigation/location, “there will be a category of apps that will be unique to our cars and very different from what people use today on their smart phones or tablets,” said Phil Abram, GM’s Chief Infotainment Officer. “It’s not just taking phone apps and making them function in a car, which most car companies do in some form now.”

Abram noted that GM may approve applications intended to improve the ownership experience. One app that is reportedly under development monitors fuel prices along a preset route and then modifies the navigation directions to take advantage of the least costly filling stations along the way.

The fundamental difficulty that car manufacturers face in this new fast-evolving technical arena is the classic timing-mismatch between the product development cycles: "all-new" annually for consumer electronics devices, several years for autos.

Open software development

Ford’s and GM’s separately stated goal is to raise the number of available infotainment apps as fast as is feasible. So they are moving in tandem to accelerate app integration by smoothing the path for independent software developers to code, create, and market in-car electronics apps. To do so, the cross-town competitors revealed that they will open up their vehicles’ computer systems to third-party developers in much the same way smart phone manufacturers do with their devices.

Both car makers say that they will enable more apps to interface more intimately with their cars’ audio and display systems and even access some data (mileage, speed, and so forth) from the engine through the data bus. They each report having just held app hackathon events for public brainstorming to invent novel software solutions.

“We’d like to create the highest-volume architecture in the industry with Sync, so we have to make the process as simple as possible for developers by providing the most effective tools and best implementation,” stated Ford’s Global Director of Connected Services Solutions, Doug VanDagens. By 2015, Ford forecasts 14 million vehicles on the road to be equipped with Sync, which was developed in collaboration with Microsoft.

Syncing with developers

Like its competitors’ infotainment products, the three-year-old Sync AppLink platform supports only a few apps, mostly for audio streaming. But Ford is now “inviting software developers from all over to participate,” said Ford’s Paul Mascarenas, Chief Technical Officer and Vice President, Ford Research and Innovation, on the CES stage. He cited the ability of an open approach to harness the innovation that is out there and to help spot market trends early.

Ford is even offering to its competitors as a common development platform its AppLink application programming interface (API) platform, which enables software components to communicate with each other. VanDagens has even larger targets in mind. “We want to be the VHS of automotive infotainment technology,” he said. “Sync could become the de facto industry standard.”

The expansion of the Sync software, VanDagens said, includes several Web portal-available tools and services, a software developer kit (SDK), support from Ford’s internal mobile app development house, jacAPPS, as well as app-testing by Cetecom. A technology development kit (TDK), a software emulator otherwise known as “Sync in a box,” is available for proving out the code.

To create a Sync app, he continued, an independent developer would incorporate Sync AppLink code into a proposed app program, submit the app to Ford to determine if it is bug-free and if it has potential utility in cars. Approved apps developers will also get help with distribution licensing and market entry.

Linking with developers

Like Ford, GM wants to grow a larger app ecosystem with its own MyLink infotainment system, said Steve Schwinke, Director of Application Development. “We want to establish an ecosystem that is very familiar to both developers and consumers.”

GM is supplying APIs to third-party developers to support app development, saying that its new platform will accelerate the addition of apps to vehicles more quickly and even following their purchase. An SDK is available through a company Web portal and GM personnel are ready to collaborate with independent developers to design, test, and deliver apps. Guidelines for avoiding driver distraction are also provided.

“We have a rich set of APIs,” Schwinke said. “And you can extract data as read only-info by tapping the vehicle bus—the odometer, fuel level, brakes, acceleration, how the car is operating.”

“We’re trying to eliminate the friction that hinder app development to allow the system to expand rapidly,” he said. The MyLink system includes a HTML 5 with Java Script framework, for example, “because the developers don’t want to learn a new language to get going.”

GM car owners, Schwinke said, will download apps to the head unit from an expanding MyLink app catalog that will be available in 2014. “We expect somewhere more than 9 and less than 1000 apps.”

Chrysler connects to nav

Meanwhile at CES, the other domestic car maker, Chrysler, introduced the capability for a dealer to download a navigation system onto a car without one but that does have a display screen, said Jim Robnett, Director, Uconnect Systems and Services. “Not every customer wants to buy a nav system,” he noted. “This lets you activate it later at the dealership.” A coded signal to the Nokia-enabled Uconnect nav unit brings to life preloaded navigation software. Used car buyers will also find this excellent example of backward compatibility useful.

Because open car infotainment systems require third parties to gain some control over the driver’s experience, they entail potential risks to driving safety, security, and the car model-specific display themes on which automakers spend so much time and money developing. Opening up is therefore a big step for the industry.

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