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Car apps take Ford, GM on different courses

Posted: 07 Jan 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:GM  Ford Motors  SDK  smartphone app  in-vehicle infotainment 

According to various sources, General Motors and Ford Motors are on a hiring spree for software developers in Silicon Valley and Southern California. GM, with its own software development kit (SDK), is courting software developers to write unique automotive apps for their cars. On the other hand, Ford is offering its own SDK for software developers to write smartphone apps to be used in Ford cars.

These divergent approaches illustrate a measure of ambivalence among carmakers on how to tackle the growing number of software apps that seem destined to change their cars' future.

A key question carmakers are still wrestling with is whether third-party software developers should focus on writing software directly to the automotive platform, or should they be developing smartphone apps that will be used in cars?

Either way, the onslaught of software development is bringing both opportunities and headaches to car OEMs.

Just talking about "cars" and "software" in the same sentence makes a few knowledgeable drivers a little uneasy. The growing number of software apps on cars is uncharted territory for everyone, including carmakers (who aren't exactly known for their cutting-edge software skills). Moreover, let's be honest, we all worry about the potential of software running wild, which could, in the worst case, undermine the safety of future cars.

EE Times first reported last month that Google will come to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to announce an industry consortium for connecting phones with cars. How exactly that will change the software landscape for the automotive industry is too early to tell.

What's clear is that the software conundrum automakers face today comes in multiple layers.

I asked Egil Juliussen, principal analyst, infotainment & ADAS, at IHS Automotive, to help decipher the multifaceted software challenges for future cars.

With the block diagram below, Juliussen explained that major stakeholders of software and hardware platforms are competing at every software layer.

Multiple software layers for IVI architecture

Multiple software layers for new in-vehicle infotainment architecture. (Source: IHS Automotive)

In the infotainment platform, companies like QNX, for example, held a 50 percent market share in auto-grade application software interfaces in 2012, according to IHS. Microsoft's share was about 25 percent.

Once cars get connected with the outside world, automakers are now also in need of auto-grade middleware that handles common network software, said Juliussen.

For example, GENIVI, a non-profit industry alliance designed for the broad adoption of an in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) open-source development platform, is gaining ground, he explained.

Beyond the software platform API, to which developers can write apps to the automotive infotainment platform, automakers are now finding a new wrinkle in the IVI apps platform, namely, how to deal with human-machine interface (HMI) software on their infotainment platforms.

In addition to the switches, knobs and buttons that automakers use in the current head unit, car OEMs now must handle new HMI such as speech, multi-touch and gesture. As smartphones apps get integrated into the IVI platform, carmakers need to figure out how to tailor smartphone apps to auto HMI, run smartphone apps from the head unit, and control the head unit with automotive HMI.

Where the IHS analyst believes the biggest innovation might take place, however, is IVI apps, with the emergence of unique car-centric apps that can ultimately help differentiate OEMs' cars. Describing them as "unknown future apps," Juliussen told us that car OEMs will be banking on that opportunity.

To succeed with apps that run on IVI systems, carmakers will need an app store for downloads and future upgrades, said the analyst. He noted "a deployment strategy is wide open for OEMs or third-party developers."

Juliussen pointed out, of course, that the automotive industry has yet to resolve one key question: Do we need IVI apps if smartphones already have thousands of auto-related apps?

Juliussen answered with a resounding yes.

Existing smartphone apps include navigation software, traffic info, location-based services, Internet radio and digital music storage, communication apps (texting and email), social networking, telematics apps (remote control, vehicle location,) and entertainment.

While such smartphone apps will be welcome in any in-vehicle system, Juliussen explained, "Key in-vehicle apps [independent of smartphones] are also needed to provide a user interface that focuses the driver's hands and mental power on driving tasks... Some IVI apps use auto data for advanced functionality and needs to be built-in into an IVI system."

Asked exactly what sort of car-centric apps he's expecting, Juliussen said apps that can explain onboard diagnostics data, for example, would be great. When a check-engine light goes on, the driver wants an app that explains what's going on with the engine and what to do about it.

Future of car apps

Future of auto applications. (Source: IHS Automotive)

While the majority of smartphone apps, of course, can be used in the car, with apps integration software between head unit and smartphone, Juliussen believes that there will be persistent concerns over "driver distraction issues." Cars, he feels, need an auto HMI better than what a smartphone can provide.

Further, he said: "Laws that limit driver distraction from mobile devices will grow."

- Junko Yoshida
  EE Times

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