Content and Apps for Automotive by Telematics Update Wrap-Up

Over the two days of Telematics Update’s Content and Apps for Automotive Conference there was a lot to be learned about the state of the industry and where people think it’s going.  We covered the industry from end to end and touched on all the leading technology frameworks and business models.  The event as a whole went great, turnout was very good and the panels / presentation we’re loaded with information. It’s an interesting albeit frustrating time to part of the industry.  As with any great advancement in technology there are huge opportunities and even more uncertainty.

It is agreed that the automotive industry needs to address the advanced features and functionality of smartphones in an automotive environment…but that’s about the only thing that’s been agreed upon.

Everything else, what services to deliver, how to deliver them, how to monetize the whole thing, and, most importantly, how to do it all safely remain undefined.  All the pieces are pertinent to the conversation, but without a doubt, the issues of driver distraction and safety overshadow all others.  It’s understandable of course, driver distraction is a real danger and between Oprah and Ray LaHood the issue has been given a lot of air time.  Unfortunately the fear of Ray LaHood, the DoT and rampant lawsuits seem to be the greatest barrier to delivering really cool consumer facing services.  Many companies are positioning themselves as simple service providers not liable for the end product.  The companies willing to take on the liability (logically) want to minimize their exposure and end up severely limiting the actual functionality offered to their end users.

The short term solution to liability of driver distraction is to deliver tightly controlled features i.e. things that can be easily integrated (like music services) and highly customized apps (like those released by OEMs for electric vehicles).  This works…sort of.  It’s really the absolute bare minimum and in many cases just using your existing smartphone apps while driving may work better.

Medium term people are looking towards voice control systems.  Voice control is great in theory, but it continues to under deliver on people’s expectations.  Sitting in my house with a desktop computer (a far more favorable environment than the car) I can’t effectively control much of anything or dictate a decent email.  Systems are getting better, but thanks to Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, people expect a true natural language recognition system that no current system even begins to approach.

Long term there was one truly intriguing system that was discussed…the autonomous car.  No really, think about it.  If the major issue is driver distraction then removing the driver from the equation should be a pretty effective solution.  iSuppli’s Egil Juliussen, Ph.D. suggested 2015 for a real increase in Advanced Driver Assist Systems and ~2025 for some real forms of autonomous or semi-autonomous driving.  Talking about self-driving cars is still more Sci-Fi than it is bleeding edge, but I sure hope it’s coming fast because I hate driving (you grow up in Los Angeles traffic and not hate driving, I dare you).

I got the impression that even the already to market Ford Sync system (with all its features and screens) is more exposure than most OEMs are willing to accept.  Even with Ford’s aggressive approach to infotainment / entertainment in the car they haven’t really opened up their API.  I really hope that the industry doesn’t shy away from this arena purely because of the liability issues.  The always-on lifestyle is here to stay and burying your head in the sand is not the right thing to do for your customers.  Until there is an effective way for the wider world to develop application specific to the automotive environment, the end users wont be getting the best possible experience from their infotainment systems.

There is no easy answer and safety is probably the most difficult area to innovate.  The questions around how to integrate with the car, how deep to allow the integration, how to display the information to the user and how to certify the apps are all still too large to be effectively addressed.  Until there is a breakthrough in HMI technologies or there is clear cut regulation developing for the automotive environment is going to remain a minefield of liability issues.  Partnerships between OEMs to adopt particular standards could go a long way towards minimizing these issues and everyone agrees that it will be better to self-impose some restrictions than to have Texting Czar LaHood (that’s his title, right?) get more involved.

There are a lot of issues to be resolved beyond the distraction, but given the size of the market opportunity there is little doubt that if the risk is reduced to a reasonable level (i.e. driver distraction related liability issues are addressed), everything else will get figured out.

Come back soon, we’ll be talking more about the crossover between apps, content and the automotive industry, in particular, about some of the business model opportunities that exist going forward.

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