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Auto Apps: The Secret Sauce in the Safety, Connectivity Combo

By Patrick Nelson
Dec 12, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Motor vehicle safety has been a thorn in the side of the auto industry since Model T Fords rattled their way across the big-sky American landscape a hundred years ago.

Auto Apps: The Secret Sauce in the Safety, Connectivity Combo

The industry's introduction of the safety cage during the sepia-toned first half of the 20th century was the start of a concerted effort to deal with a sticky problem of customer churn, putting it politely.

Crumple zones, three-point seat belts, anti-lock brakes and airbags followed as the kodachrome-toned twentieth-century ramped up. To give credit where it's due, the auto industry solved many safety problems, and along with safety campaigns, statistics proved a job well done as we slammed into Y2K and beyond.

However, there's a surreptitious issue that's niggling in this first quarter of the 21st century. It's something that neither Henry Ford nor later safety advocates Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson (founders of Volvo, a significant contributor to car safety) could ever have thought of when laminating their windscreens back in the day.

It's something that some believe could derail much of the work thus far completed if it's not addressed properly. That issue is one of connectivity.

Safely Connected

As a car maker, how do you address consumers' expectations that they should always be switched on to their network when you need those consumers to concentrate on their driving in order to use your product?

At the LA Auto Show earlier this month, Auto Alliance, an industry advocacy group representing car makers, showed off some connected car technologies that they hope will go some way toward alleviating this thorny problem. Their solution: Deliver what the consumer wants -- connectivity -- and deliver it safely by managing the interface.

Livio's Livio Connect product helps users safely access and control smartphone-like apps through their car stereo. Safety mechanisms include shutting down the user's smartphone's interaction.

"When the phone is connected, it's bricked," Nicole Yelland, brand manager at Livio, told TechNewsWorld.

Livio wants its API to be installed on hardware devices. The protocol receives and sends information about app controls. The smartphone's apps are then replicated in larger, easier-to-read form on the vehicle head unit.

The protocol needs to be added to third-party apps, which then communicate with the devices -- both handheld smartphone and head unit -- via Bluetooth. The in-car screen handles the user interaction, rather than the fiddly smartphone. Users can't get into their smartphone -- even if they forget while driving and make a grab for it.

The system is ready to go, according to Yelland.

"We have some 20 apps," she said.

Historically, auto makers have been three years or more behind smartphone makers in their interfaces. This is due to development cycles, and it may be leading to general consumer disappointment at the reveal.

If car makers can't provide attractive, current products, drivers will use their own, possibly unsafe interface -- right now, the ever updating smartphone.

Qualcomm, also showing at the event, reckons its next-generation smart automotive product goes some way to alleviate these issues.

It uses the Wi-Fi Alliance standard called "Miracast," and like Livio, it forces interaction from handheld device onto the in-car screen. [*Correction - Dec. 17, 2012]

"Miracast allows faster integration of consumer tech in cars," Qualcomm Product Manager Nisarg A. Modi told TechNewsWorld.

This is because it uses a simple low-cost screen for mid- to low-priced vehicles, he explained. A Qualcomm chip-enabled upgradeable device then controls the screen.

This allows consumers to upgrade devices regularly, as they do with smartphones, and not see the head-unit become outdated, as is the case now. The screen remains what it is -- a screen. The updateable apps and features remain on the updateable consumer device.

How soon? Qualcomm's product will be available as an accessory in 2015 and OEM in 2016, Modi said.

Car to Cloud

Intel is also developing in-car technology for what it calls "the always connected lifestyle." Its approach is more cloud-based than the device-based delivery mechanisms favored by Livio and Qualcomm.

The car needs to connect with the cloud, Joel Andrew Hoffmann, an automotive strategist at Intel Intelligent Systems, told TechNewsWorld.

"It's car to cloud," he said.

Intel's products will accelerate the development cycle and bring down the cost of new designs, said Hoffmann. One of the ways they will do this is through open source. Intel has contributed to the Linux kernel and plans to use it in its modular car products.

Sprint unveiled Sprint Velocity at the event. It's a flexible in-vehicle communications platform that lets auto makers pick and choose wireless elements a la carte.

Among those elements: music, news, weather, sports and other infotainment features; security; navigation; remote connections for devices; emergency services; and engine diagnostics.

Sprint's technology is currently used in the Chrysler Group's Uconnect Access system.

By 2020, Sprint said, citing data from Machina Research, 90 percent of new passenger cars will include some kind of connectivity platform.

*ECT News Network editor's note - Dec. 17, 2012: Our original published version of this article incorrectly stated that the Qualcomm product "uses the Wi-Fi Alliance and Texas Instruments standard called 'Miracast.'" In fact, Miracast is a Wi-Fi Alliance standard only and not specific to any company.

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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