Issue: Mar 2011


Harnessing the power of the age of the app in the auto industry



by Andrew Jackson

With the rise of smartphones and apps, the automotive industry now finds itself at the threshold of the never-ending trajectory of media-storage and technology. 

When the iPhone was launched in 2007, Apple single-handedly changed the way in which people used smartphones. By 2010, their market share was approximately 60%, with nearly 40 million units sold annually worldwide. Instrumental to the iPhone’s (and now several other competitors’) meteoric rise in popularity is the creation of ‘apps’ (applications) which allow the user to infinitely tailor the functionality of their phone. More than ten billion of these applications having been bought and downloaded since 2007 for Apple’s iPhones alone.

As the auto industry has historically been highly adaptable to modern trends, it is inevitable that apps and smartphone connectivity will become a prerequisite. The key question is how manufacturers will harness the power of such limitless flexibility in software design.

For the smartphone user, many manufacturers are developing or releasing applications that allow the user to interact with their vehicles like never before. Toyota’s “Entune” is one of several examples of how users are able to manipulate media in their car via an app on their phone. Other potential app functions include the monitoring of telemetry, which is ordinarily stored by their vehicle’s onboard computers, e.g. charging progress for plug-in hybrids, or service diagnostics which indicates if a vehicle requires maintenance.

Safety feature apps are also on the horizon. Some manufacturers are developing apps that would enable keyless entry, remote starting and breakdown recovery, much in the same way that Onstar has provided, except that the functions would be available on the users’ smartphone.

A number of manufacturers has taken the first steps in this area, with Fiat, Ford, GM, Kia and Toyota representing the organic evolution of the market. Their systems are based on onboard, standalone processing units that feature a multitude of functions such as email, navigation, internet radio, diagnostic tools and music synchronisation. From a premium segment perspective, manufacturers such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz are experimenting with Long Term Evolution (LTE or 4G in short) technology to enable internet-based infotainment, in-car WIFI hotspotting and potentially vehicle-to-vehicle networking, much like Audi Connect.

Both systems – Smartphone and onboard based -  have their advantages. Smartphones offer the faster route to market, as the software architecture is usually based upon existing platforms provided by companies such as Microsoft or Intel and can be run in a standalone configuration. The latter is still in testing, and the carrier network is yet to be available on the mass market. Some products are only just beginning to surface on flagship and “halo” cars.

However, the key benefit of this system is that it would allow cloud-based computing. This means that software updates are automatically streamed to the vehicle thanks to the additional bandwidth of an LTE network. Critically, this represents a solution to the potential Achilles’ heel of the “onboard” approach; namely software compatibility or version obsolescence.

A recent example of this weakness was when Apple released iOS 4 in 2010, which was found to be incompatible with Ford’s SYNC software (which was compatible with the previous version of iPhone software). In some cases, the newer version corrupted the in-car software to an extent that required dealer attention. Furthermore, the average age of a car in any developed country’s car parc is approximately seven years, but mobile phone technologies are radically overhauled on an annual basis. Therefore, unless the software update policies of vehicle manufacturers are synchronised with the mobile technology platform, today’s mobile technology will rapidly fall into obsolescence tomorrow.

The future has to lie beyond the in-car software/hardware approach. To be able to provide the functionality and the stability required for the proliferating smartphone industry, software architecture cannot realistically be contained within the vehicle unless a sustainable software updating policy is employed to mitigate incompatibility. LTE technology offers one such solution with the vehicle acting as a hub, ensuring that operating software updates are both scheduled and standardised.

Having such a network would allow vehicle manufacturers to concentrate on the generation of new revenue streams through the provision of their own “app stores” as opposed to fighting to keep up in the arms race of compatible in-car hardware/software.

Admittedly, this is venturing into the realm of speculation, but it represents the opportunity that vehicle manufacturers are currently presented. This technology is only in its infancy, but is fast becoming a reality, and the door is open to a world where the functionality of in-car infotainment systems is endless. All that is required is for manufacturers to take the leap - and judging by the level of activity in the market, it would seem that many are preparing to do just that.

About Andrew Jackson
With a research background spanning seven years, Andrew has worked in the scientific, chemical and automotive research sectors.
Andrew has significant industry knowledge and has an understanding of the automotive sector from all aspects, including the business, engineering and consumer perspectives. He holds a master’s degree in chemistry and a doctorate in materials chemistry.



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