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CES 2012: The bumps on the road for connected cars

January 12, 2012 |  4:57 pm

Subaru's technology relies on its drivers' smartphones
Like television makers, leading automobile manufacturers want application developers to imbue cars with some of the energy and innovation seen in smartphones. And like their counterparts in the TV industry, they haven't settled on a standard way of doing so. The mishmash of approaches means that drivers may have to wait longer for their favorite apps to become available in the models of their choice, as different manufacturers follow divergent paths toward the connected car.

The differences surfaced at this week's Consumer Electronics Show, where a host of car brands demonstrated the entertainment and information offerings they're developing. Mercedes-Benz typified one approach, showing off a customized app platform built in-house and curated by its apps team in Silicon Valley. Subaru exemplified the opposite strategy; it chose the apps platform that Aha, a subsidiary of Harman, is developing for car makers and aftermarket car-stereo manufacturers.
Executives at both car companies say they want to take advantage of app developers' work on mobile phones. But they also note that their top priority is safety, which shapes their choices of apps to make available and the way drivers interact with them.

Mercedes is atypical in one important respect: It embeds the equivalent of a 3G Verizon phone into its cars, rather relying on the driver's smartphone for connectivity. The latest version of its telematics software, called mbrace2 and due in April, is the company's first that can be updated remotely. That means new apps can be added while they're still new, instead of subjecting them to the industry's torturous three-year development cycle -- a delay that can render an app obsolete by the time it makes it into a car, said Sascha Simon, Mercedes' head of advanced product planning.

VIDEOS: 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

It's not an open platform, however, and Mercedes will not publish its programming interfaces for developers, Simon said in an interview this week. But it is making available through mbrace2 a wide variety of apps and services that are relevant and enhance the driving experience -- 60 so far, and the number will grow.

These include a widget that lets owners send their car's navigation system points of interest they find while browsing on their PCs or smartphones (a new restaurant, for example), and a streamlined version of Facebook that can write its own status updates based on the car's location and its destination. "You can't stop people from doing it," even if you don't want them using Facebook behind the wheel, Simon said. "If folks will use it, let's make it as safe as humanly possible."

Mercedes also tries to compensate for the distractions that apps present by equipping their cars with technology that can apply the brakes automatically, guard against drifting across lanes and warn drivers about vehicles in their blind spots. But their vehicles are, ahem, more expensive than the average ride.

Connectivity to the car is a two-way street, and Mercedes sees a big opportunity to offer services based on data that apps glean from the car's diagnostic system. These include the ability to trouble-shoot problems remotely and recover stolen vehicles. There are obvious privacy trade-offs to having that kind of monitoring, though, which is why such services are opt-in only, Simon said.

Subaru relies on its drivers' cellphones to supply the in-car connectivity. Although it's using Aha's platform to integrate apps into its cars' built-in audio system and display, Subaru still controls what the user interface looks like and which apps to make available. "It's our car," said David Sullivan, a car line manager for Subaru. "At the end of the day, we answer to the customer."

Because Aha's software platform is online, not in the cars themselves, apps can be updated continuously after the cars are sold, said Robert L. Acker, Aha's general manager. Aha also gives drivers a single, simple set of controls for using all the apps, which include the MOG and Rhapsody on-demand music services, Slacker and Shoutcast online radio services, audio books, Facebook and Twitter news feeds and NPR podcasts. The apps are aggregated into a menu on the car's display, turning them into a "fourth band" alongside AM, FM and satellite radio.

When a driver tunes in one of these services, the car's audio system sends a link through the driver's smartphone to the Internet, pulling content from the driver's account with that service. For example, tuning in Slacker would provide access to the custom Slacker stations the driver created, as well as Slacker's own playlists. To limit the distraction, Sullivan said, Subaru plans to give drivers access just to five preselected favorites per screen. They'll be able to make their selections through voice commands as well as by using the display's touchscreen.

Acker said Aha's goal is to make it far easier for app developers to integrate with multiple car makers, rather than tailoring their software to meet the various manufacturers' technical requirements and design mandates. At this point, though, its only announced partners are Subaru and Honda. It's also available through the car stereos that Pioneer sells directly to consumers.

QNX Software Systems of Canada is another company making software platforms for connected cars. Kerry Johnson, a senior product manager for QNX, said the fragmentation in the industry was a real problem for developers. In his view, three things have to happen before cars routinely support a wide array of apps: Automakers have to give developers more guidance on how not to distract drivers; a software platform will have to emerge that gives developers the right tools and the incentive to use them; and there need to be enough cars with systems that can be upgraded to support apps.

"By 2013 at the earliest, you'll start seeing a base of vehicles that are upgradeable," Johnson said. Whether developers will be motivated enough to write apps for them, he added, is another question.


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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow him @jcahealey.

Photo: Subaru's interface. Credit: Harman / Aha