Connectivity still suffers from disconnects

  • 19-Oct-2010 04:30 EDT

Kia’s Henry Bzeih (left) says connected architectures are “the wild, wild west.” He expects standardization to help tame them.

Younger car buyers soon will be picking vehicles not by their styling and horsepower, but by their level of connectivity. That will change many facets of design, and it will require automakers to work with partners to create an environment that lets drivers stay connected without impacting safety.

Defining strategies that let OEMs and a broad range of suppliers create platforms that attract buyers of all ages is one of the key challenges facing the industry today. Panelists that included automakers, cell phone providers, and chipmakers provided insight into potential solutions during the Oct. 19 Blue Ribbon Panel at the SAE Convergence 2010 conference in Detroit.

They agreed that companies will have to work with partners to meet the myriad demands associated with connectivity. That’s because consumer interests are constantly changing, making it difficult to keep up. It’s also difficult to discern who is responsible for different aspects.

“There’s a lot of turbulence around who owns the customer,” said Tyler Lessard, Vice President, Global Alliances and Developer Relations at Research In Motion. “We need to take an ecosystem-centric approach.”

That ecosystem extends well beyond vehicle makers and Tier 1s. Even cell phone providers who are known for rapid changes view vehicle connectivity as a moving target.

“We have to be very nimble,” said Timothy Johnson, Manager, Emerging Solutions Strategic Opportunities for Sprint Nextel Corp. “We have to look at the infrastructure side—not just vehicle to the cloud but vehicle to infrastructure.”

Within the vehicle, things are even more unsettled. This market is quite new, so there are a number of technical approaches. There has been some attempt at standardization, but it is too early to tell if that will have much impact.

“It’s the wild, wild west with architectures,” said Henry Bzeih, National Manager, Connected Car, Kia Motors America. “I see a convergence down the road, but a lot of parameters will impact how the architectures will look. Two or three architectures will make their way down the road and succeed.”

Those architectures will have to be flexible. The long development times of vehicles set one part of the challenge, while their long lifetimes present another. As users store more data on cars, including profiles for their favorite connections, they will want to transfer them when they buy new vehicles.

“How everything integrates, things like portals and handsets, will be critical,” said Tom Metzger, Senior Vice President and General Manager, ATX Group. “There’s also a tremendous amount of validation that goes along with the customer database when they move from one vehicle to the next.”

Perhaps more importantly, architectures will also have to permit upgrades over the life of the vehicle. Consumer technologies will change ever more quickly, and vehicle owners won’t want to feel that their car keeps them trapped in the past.

“Many buyers will share the concept that the car should be able to keep up with their latest technologies,” said Kevin Dallas, General Manager of Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Business. “To do that we need to know what type processing is being done on the cloud and what’s done on the vehicle.”

In some of these areas, groups like SAE will be able to help by creating standards. “Standardization is a key,” Kia's Bzeih said. “We’re dealing with many, many solutions and many, many approaches.”

Though all parties in the panel are pushing to add functions such as text reading, Facebook connectivity, and other telematics services, they acknowledge that it is not necessarily easy for drivers to access them without losing control of the vehicle. Many voice concerns that drivers tend to want to see that latest message and may forget they are supposed to be controlling their vehicle.

“Sometimes, driving is the distraction,” said John Waraniak, Vice President of Vehicle Technology for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).

Though there is much focus on driver distraction, there are ways to minimize the impact of new technologies. Voice recognition will make it much easier to send a text message, and text-to-speech technologies will let drivers receive e-mail or text messages without taking their eyes off the road.

“It’s an interesting trap to focus on driver distraction,” said Nick Pudar, Vice President, Planning and Business Development, OnStar LLC. “The real challenge is to reduce the cognitive load and enhance the driver’s situational awareness.”

Design teams don’t have a lot of time to devise solutions. Connectivity is expected to have a very strong growth rate even in a sluggish economy.

“By 2016, the majority of users will expect to have connectivity in mainstream vehicles,” said Thilo Koslowski, Automotive Vice President, Gartner Inc. He connected to the Convergence conference via a remote link, underscoring the importance of connectivity.

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