Cars: the next mobile platform

By Inmaculada Martinez on May 25th, 2012

The automobile industry is currently undergoing a fascinating transformation. It’s a new age which presents itself to consumers beyond the expected luxury electric motors, the new KITT talking cars or even Google’s self-driving car, whose bill passed the California Senate this week by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of 37 – 0.

The motivation behind it? The need for autonomous cars that save lives by preventing bad drivers from being on the loose. Today, thanks to technology, drivers want to make further use of the in-car space and the hours that they spend at the wheel. Finally this need is coming to a developing platform near you.

This new future is one where humans spend longer spans of time in their vehicles and the car cabin becomes a connected space. As the economy downspirals and people are prepared to commute even further in order to reduce the cost of living or simply to continue being in the workforce after being laid off, researchers are beginning to detect the growing number of “super-commuters”, men and women who have a residence in one city and work in another often 100 miles or more.

From 2002 to 2009, their number in the US alone grew in eight of the ten largest metropolitan cities, with areas such as northern Manhattan seeing the trend grow by 60 per cent, probably due to the massive financial industries lay offs and the collapse of the housing market. About 13 per cent of the workforce in the Houston and Dallas areas meet the new definition, with many travelling the 240 mile route between the two cities every day.

For the 42 million people in the US that commute to work in their car for at least 30 minutes each way, and the 18 million UK car commuters that drive around 28 miles round trip each day, leveraging the time they spend locked-up is a must. This means more than just work and personal calls. This call to action is currently being answered by the usual suspects which most people would identify with computers and mobile phones. It’s a brave new world called connected cars, and it goes beyond Bluetooth or gadgets that fall under your driving seat. It is the world of IVI: in-vehicle infotainment.

In 2009, I was engaged to advise in the Nokia-Intel MeeGo IVI software platform developer outreach programme. MeeGo, chosen by the GENIVI Alliance as the platform of choice, was grounded on the idea that IVI was to be used to build navigation, entertainment and location-based services systems in cars and to provide connections to devices, car and broadband networks. Sadly, in 2011, when Nokia was unable to keep concurrent innovation projects and forced to focus on one platform to push forward, Windows Mobile, MeeGo, a Linux-based platform went open source and open road.

Mobile developers still create apps for mobile phones, but here is a new market that is opening up to Android and iOS developers: in-car IVI. Automotive electronics is the new playground for software developers.

The good news about this is that, this time, developers do not need to learn to develop for a new platform. Car manufacturers, unbeknownst to many, have finally put real budgets towards building cars as one big “device moving at speed” and, surprisingly, they do not want to develop their own proprietary systems, but invite the software industry to original equipment manufacturers. The great playing field is not just about creating apps, but about helping the car industry address a very IBM-in-1985 problem: to source lines of code.

Cars’ existing electronic control units (ECUs), which operate body, engine, doors and the dashboard have an insane number of lines of code already. Low-end cars use about 30 to 50 ECUs, whereas an S-class Mercedes relies on about 20 million. When the number of coded lines grows to over 300 million lines to connect the cars to the new futuristic IVI, the headache is bound to be of a magnitude hard to imagine.

The Linux and Android operating systems can play a pivotal role in creating a new market for developers but they can be challenged by other established competitors like Microsoft and QNX, a subsidiary of RIM in the middleware market for connected embedded systems.

Software, if developers are willing to lift their heads from the mobile phone, is going to be the big differentiator for cars and where the automotive industry is diverting more and more R&D for the connected car is on the verge of going where no vehicle has ever gone before. Welcome on board!