Monday, March 19, 2012

On SXSW: Toyota doesn't get auto apps

Panel at SXSW "Auto Meets Mobile:  Building In-Vehicle Apps"
At SXSW I sat in on a panel led by Michelle Avary from Toyota and Rich Brand from NPR.  Michelle represented Toyota's "product" arm and Rich had experience in this space during the development of NPR's auto app.

They started with driving a point home about complexity.  Electronics, including car stereo head units, are hardened devices to withstand the rigors of driving and crashes.  Additionally, inside of a single model, different trim levels will have different head units and those head units will each have different operating systems.

So let's take the Lexus LS as an example.  The base 460 trim level will have one head unit, let's call is A with operating system 1.  The 460L and 460H will have different head units, too, B and C, with operating systems 2 and 3.
  • 460: A - 1
  • 460L: B - 2
  • 460H: C - 3
If one is to build an application to run on each of these trim levels for a single model, you'd need to write it to be compatible with all three operating systems and the different head units will have different capabilities (GPS vs. no GPS).  This further complicates when you consider cross-models and cross-brands.  From a software developer's point of view, this is definitely sub-optimal.  You may be able to write for a particular brand and trim level, but to write for multiple brands would likely become unmanageable rather quickly.

There is also a situation where the version of the operating system may not be up to date.  Currently OS updates to in-car stereos is done either by a dealership or by mailed storage like a DVD or thumb-drive.

Their next point was about the development lag in cars.  Typical development lag, according to Michelle, is five years.  I'm sure this varies between brands, but I'll accept it as a general rule.  So this means that a brand new car today began development in 2007.  What else happened in 2007?  The iPhone was first introduced.  Apps didn't really take off until some time after that.

That certainly helps explain why car interfaces with Android devices are lagging.  My Challenger, as an example, seamlessly interacts with an iOS product at a limited level, but my only Android option is the Auxillary jack.

So I follow all of of this to this point.  Lots of head units, lots of trim levels, lots of operating systems and lots of brands.  Being a developer, my first inclination is to simplify the system.  And the best way to do that is to eliminate the head units.  Or, at least, make them dumber.  By dumber I mean they should provide a simple interface to a tuner and an amplifier.  Out side of that, the brains of the stereo should be provided by a tablet.

Custom iPad dashboard install.  (Source)
The holy grail is the ability to take my tablet, which already has my music library along with my favorite apps and plug it directly into my car transforming it into the dashboard interface.  Sound nice?

This question was asked after the panel.  The responses from Michelle and Rich really missed the mark and the point of mobile applications.  They had these reasons why it wouldn't work:
  • It would look bad against the aesthetics of the car interior.  "Lexus owners expect a certain level of refinement."
  • Trying to design for multiple jacks would be difficult.  (Android's micro-USB vs. Apple's wide-plug)
  • The software would not be in their control and that's dangerous.
So, to get this straight, Toyota and other manufacturers are already designing black 7'' or 10'' screens into dashboards without issue, but designing a dock for a 7'' or 10'' tablet is too much?  Further, designing software for hundreds of operating system and head unit combinations is easier than designing around two different plugs?

The third point has the greatest chance of being valid, but is still a red-herring.  It doesn't matter.  People are already using their docked phones or tablets, and the apps on them, to control their experience in the car.  OEMs have no control over this situation and it falls on the user of the phone or tablet to find applications that are easiest and least distracting to use.

I don't buy it.  There are already aftermarket companies designing iPad docks for cars.  Some going so far as to replace head unit installations with docks that plug into tuners and the in-car speakers. 

Scosche iPad Dock it in a Subaru STI.  (Source)

My Proposal - Open Standards, Open Docks.
The car manufacturers should be working with Apple, Motorola, Asus and others to design an open standard that hardware manufacturers can design against.  This standard says plugs will be in this location, expecting the tablet to be in this orientation.

An open programming standard should also be defined, which allows a measure of control with the "dumb" dock and interface with the tuner, microphone, and speakers.  This open standard describes the API available to programmers.  Apple and Android then develops the necessary updates to their SDK's to give the programmers ability to interface with the dumb terminal.

Further, Toyota and other manufacturers can create a certification system that certifies only the best in-car apps as being safe to use.  This will provide a measuring stick for the public to sort the good apps from the bad.  Additionally, Toyota can partner with Apple or an Android tablet manufacturer to sell a tablet with the car.  Not only are you getting a car, but you might be getting The New iPad or an Asus Transformer Ultra Prime.  The manufacturers can write their own applications, as well, as the only "official" dashboard app for a particular model and trim level.

This eliminates your complexity around operating systems and head units.  It becomes decoupled, focusing on the open standards letting the software be the differentiating factor, not the hardware.  It also gives the car manufacturer a way into the car buyer's home.  Those same apps they build for their cars can also provide additional features for their in-home experience.  There is much to be gained!

What the OEMs need to understand is that this is already happening.  There's already a growing user base installing tablet docks into their cars and there's already a very large user base which has smartphone docks. They use these devices for music, GPS, and internet radio now.  Toyota, and the other OEMS, can either fight against the "tipping point", or they can embrace it and push for the advancement of the in-car experience.

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