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Say you're driving along, listening to your favorite tunes via your iPod connected to the vehicle or a Bluetooth-enabled device or—yes, this still happens—FM or a CD. You're not paying attention to your fuel gage, and you are shortly about to be, as Jackson Browne once sang (to keep with the musical metaphor), "Running on Empty." While some people might imagine that you are being negligently oblivious, actually, this is not an issue for you at all. That's because it just so happens that your car is equipped with a system that is based on the AutoLinQ development from Continental Automotive Group (contionline.com). Because that system is always on, the gasoline situation is not a concern.
Brian Droessler, vp of Strategy & Portfolio for Continental Automotive Group, explains that the AutoLinQ system is running in the background. It is watching for a message to be delivered via the CAN bus from the fuel gage. "As the fuel gage goes toward empty, rather than just send you a signal that you need gas"—and let's face it, cars have been doing that for years with not a whole lot of technology behind it, comparatively speaking—"it could go out and search for the lowest price gas for you," he says. Then it would feed that information to the navigation system. Select the station and get routed on your way. Without missing a beat.
Here's the thing: the AutoLinQ system that Continental exhibited at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (cesweb.org), one in a "near-production intent" head unit in a vehicle, and one on a bench environment, is not merely an amped up infotainment system. Rather, while there are the increasingly obligatory AM/FM/CD/Bluetooth/iPod/MP3/DVD/navigation functionalities being taken into account—after all, Continental has long been in this in-car information and entertainment space—they are going further. Much further. As Droessler explains, "We maintain a vision of the car as being always on," whether you're in the car or not. What's more, they have a vision of the car as being integrated into its environment, whether it is seeking out cheap gas or performing car-to-car or car-to-infrastructure communications.
And one of the ways they are bringing that vision into focus is via the AutoLinQ system.
While automakers and suppliers have been visible at the Consumer Electronics Show for the past few years—recognizing that at the end of the day—people are consumers first and drivers second, there was a particular appropriateness for Continental to be at this year's CES with the AutoLinQ system: It is based on the Android operating system, the same system that began to power cell phones during 2009, the OS that, while developed by the Open Handset Alliance (openhandsetalliance.com), is pretty much thought of in the mainstream environment as the Google mobile OS.
"The open source aspect of Android is powerful," Droessler says, adding, "You can have closed systems that feel open, or you can have an open source system." And in this case, they opted for the latter, because, in part, this allows them to "leverage the growing developer community around the Android operating system."
In other words: There are a whole lot of people and companies developing apps for Android, so they want to be in a position to take advantage of this for the benefit of their automotive customers.
One of the concerns that some might have is that there are considerable differences between an app that you run on your cell phone and one that you would run in your car. After all, your cell phone isn't something that weighs a couple thousand pounds and moves at 60 mph or more. So Continental is developing an AutoLinQ Software Development Kit (SDK) that will extend the Android application programming interface (API) so developers will be able to write apps that are auto-specific (for example, taking into account the fact that the human-machine interface (HMI) needs to be non-distracting for the driver for the aforementioned mass times velocity consideration).
One company that Continental is working with is NAVTEQ (navteq.com), the developer of digital maps and content that are found on many navigation systems. And, yes, Continental is working with another developer that is developing the gas gage/gas station app.
Also: "We will work with the OEMs to define the look and feel and experience for built-in applications." One of the advantages of the open source approach is that it would permit OEMs to tailor their offerings to the market.
What's more, the company is developing different packaging approaches for AutoLinQ. One would be in the head unit. Another would be to have it housed in a separate "silver box," which would permit integration with other head units, as long as they could provide the required graphical auxiliary input.
Droessler talks about communicating with your car via your phone or laptop . . . which seems a little, well, unusual. It is one thing to have a great interface while sitting behind the wheel, but while sitting at your desk? He answers, "What if you wanted to know if you locked your doors? What if the sunroof is open and it starts raining?"
Always on may be more helpful than one might initially imagine.
Although Continental is working on the Android platform, it has long been working with Ford on its Sync system which was co-developed with Microsoft (microsoft.com). Not only is it continuing down that path, but it has developed a “Multi Media Platform” (MMP) that is built on the Microsoft Windows Embedded Automotive platform.
The MMP is said to be scalable in that they’re developing both entry-level and high-end versions. Both are based on system-on-a-chip architecture. The objective is to provide levels of functionality—from audio to navigation—tailored to specific applications.
Continental is using Microsoft Silverlight for Windows Embedded, a software tool that helps facilitate the design of user interfaces, thereby accelerating the time to market for new products.
Although the consumer electronics industry seemingly rolls out with new versions of existing products on a monthly basis, when it comes to a new car radio, says Joel Andrew Hoffmann, Strategic Market Development Manager, In-Vehicle Infotainment Group, Intel, it can take two to three years. To say nothing of tens of millions of dollars.
Why so long and so costly? Hoffmann explains that it is really not about developing the product per se. There is, of course, the cost of the engineers. But whereas they may be able to develop the software for a high-end radio system in a few months, they spend about three quarters of their time testing it, making sure that it works. As Hoffmann simply but appropriately puts it, “People don’t want to have to reboot their radios.”
However, Hoffmann admits that the car makers are getting faster in terms of rolling out new in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) products. But there is another consideration vis-à-vis companies that are typically suppliers to consumer electronics firms. Hoffmann points out that Intel sells a derivative of a chip that it supplies to automakers to manufacturers of netbooks. Whereas Intel might get an order for a million chips from a carmaker—which certainly seems like a large number—“one of the netbook customers will buy 15 million.” Do the math and it becomes clear why the consumer electronics industry can be more appealing than auto.
Intel and BMW started working together in 2006 on a software development program. The two companies came to a realization that the scope of the undertaking would be such that others had to be involved. And this gave rise to the GENIVI Alliance (genivi.org), which is an affiliation of vehicle manufacturers—BMW, General Motors, Renault, Nissan, PSA Peugeot Citroën—Tier One suppliers, middleware suppliers, and silicon suppliers. Their objective is to create a reusable, open-source platform consisting of Linux-based core services, middleware, and open application layer interfaces.
The approach is one wherein the alliance develops things that are not simply transparent to the end user—meaning the driver—but completely invisible, as it is dealing with the open source kernel and the open source IVI stack, neither of which is of interest to the driver (well, assuming that it works). The OEMs and the Tier One suppliers are involved in the apps and the interfaces (known as “HMI,” or “Human-Machine Interface,” in this space, as if people imagine their radios or navigation systems to be machines): these are the differentiators that make one system cool and another cooked.
Because this is an open-source project, it means that the number of developers is exponentially greater than would be the case for a closed system. And although there are membership fees to become a GENIVI member, and although there are some aspects that will be exclusive to the alliance members, there is the fundamental advantage that not only are there no royalty payments involved in using this, but it greatly reduces the time and costs associated with the software developments necessary for vehicles going forward.
What’s more, because there is commonality at the middleware level, this means that suppliers will be able to develop products that can go across a variety of car makers, thereby amortizing their costs far more effectively than would be the case if they work with each individually.