Road Rules, a San Francisco start-up, explores world of car APIs

  • 30-Apr-2015 04:32 EDT
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Third-party software developers want to build apps that interact with a car’s computer system. But the landscape is difficult to navigate, with auto companies and aftermarket products offering varying degrees of accessibility. (Road Rules)

A smart phone is obviously just a phone. However, its usefulness is infinitely expanded because third-party software developers make a mind-boggling array of mobile applications, which consumers can download from an app store. The key to this collective outpouring of creativity is the application programming interface (API), a set of tools providing the building blocks for creating those independent apps.

Now that cars have become software-based connected devices with APIs, why aren’t legions of developers using the abundant flow of data from the car’s computer to make driving apps for the head unit and mobile phone? That question was the inspiration behind Road Rules, a San Francisco-based start-up, led by husband and wife team of Liz Slocum Jensen and Dave Jensen, respectively its Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer. In the company’s previous incarnation, it was called Driven Computing.

After 15 years working in enterprise software, Liz started participating about two years ago in hackathons organized by car companies. Those events, in which OEMs (usually temporarily) lift the veil off their code, allow a community of developers, interface designers, and business innovators to dream up new connected car concepts.

About the same time, she saw how technologists were accessing streaming car data via services like OnStar to allow drivers to share and compare performance. Websites like VoltStats.net allowed drivers of the extended-range electric car to compare how many miles are being driven on the electric motor instead of using gasoline. At the same time, Ford released OpenXC, its research platform expressly created to allow developers to experiment with the data flowing from the car’s computer to the cloud.

Driven Computing was launched to maximize the concept of car-based APIs by solving its major drawbacks: those APIs are difficult to use. Those APIs, described by Dave as “how the applications talk to each other,” are not only inconsistent across brands, but varied even among individual models in a specific product line.

“Our idea was to develop one API to connect any kind of connected car,” said Liz. “It wouldn’t matter if it was a Ford, General Motors, or Tesla. You just go through our API.”

After about six months of intense research into automotive APIs, Driven Computing hit a roadblock. Liz and Dave talked to automakers at their Silicon Valley tech development offices, and other players such as auto insurance companies, but despite some interest, nobody was willing to commit funds for Driven to build an engineering team. So Driven did the classic Silicon Valley pivot—renaming itself Road Rules, and turning its focus to the most useful individual functions that create clear value to drivers.

“We’re trying to automate tasks while you drive,” she said. “For example, if you’re late for a meeting, it will automatically send a notification to the attendees to let them know what your new ETA is.”

Road Rules has other similar ideas in the works. “There are a lot of use cases for bringing the connected car into the rest of our connected lifestyle,” she said. “But I don’t think they’ve been uncovered yet.”

Other companies, most notably Automatic, Dash, Carvoyant, Munic, and Zubie, are trying to uncover those hidden gems of driving functionality. They gain access to the vehicle diagnostics port to serve up information such as speed, acceleration, GPS, heading, and fuel use. To varying degrees, these companies use data about everything from steering wheel position and tire pressure to windshield wipers and electric car battery state-of-charge. The data are commonly relayed from the car’s electronic control units via a dongle that snaps into the OBD port to a smart phone via Bluetooth and then to the cloud.

The common functions available through these products are fuel efficiency guidance, route monitoring, and to some extent, interpretation of engine warnings. Those are conservative compared to ideas pouring out of hackathons, such as using windshield wiper data for documenting micro-climates to using wheel positions and braking to identify the locations of potholes for municipalities. Many of these aftermarket companies also offer their own APIs, giving third-party developers another opportunity to interact with connected car data.

“The aftermarket dongle companies are doing a great job of showing what’s behind the door,” said Dave. “Some have sandboxes. You can develop an app without even having a car. The big problem is that they don’t have access to every signal in the car.”

Dave explained that car APIs use a format called representational state transfer (REST). “It’s like standard HTTP requests, but instead of being sent to the browser, you have an HTTP client that talks to REST.” In that way, standard HTTP protocols, such as getting or putting a resource, can be used, according to Dave. Developers can also create subscriptions, establishing a URL as a destination to receive data from the car based on prescribed events such as the end of a trip.

With the imminent introduction of Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto—and their associated software developers kits and app stores—yet another avenue for developers to build car applications will emerge. Liz believes it could be the fastest and easiest so far, because Apple and Google have well established processes for building and distributing mobile applications. “OEMs have tried to do developer communities and portals with APIs,” she said. “But they haven’t gained momentum. CarPlay and Android Auto are coming along to switch the strategy.”

Meanwhile, the OEMs are apparently focusing on their own APIs, often partially or completely closed, for core vehicle functions, rather than infotainment or simply playing with your driving data. Dave believes that Tesla is further along on this path. “All of their cars are connected, and they are streaming data from the car directly to their cloud,” he said. “They are monitoring issues and detecting problems before they happen, and when something goes wrong, they can fix things over the air with software updates.”

Liz and Dave agree that connected-car technology is in its infancy, and that safety and security are important issues. (Liz believes that concerns about nefarious car hacking are mostly overblown). The husband and wife team admire the work of pioneers such as Automatic, which Liz describes as “fun,” and Metromile, a dongle-dependent insurance-by-the-mile program, which she says has "great visualizations.” But she believes this nascent industry has not yet found its most compelling use cases.

“We are at the stage of a lot of possibilities, but it hasn’t been implemented,” said Dave. “There’s so much potential for connected cars, but so far it hasn’t be realized by apps using enough of the data.”

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