In past articles in this series, we’ve talked about the emerging meme of phone-car convergence. It is difficult to predict what sorts of automobiles will emerge, or how innovative automobile companies are willing to be in this volatile economic climate, but as we study trends in the two seemingly distinct technology areas of automobiles and cellphones, it is becoming clear that cars are well on their way to becoming highly sophisticated network computers. In this article we look at Android, and why it could be significant to the automobile industry.
A Google car?
Google, at first glance, is an unlikely player in the automotive landscape beyond providing mapping services to existing car computer systems such as BMW Assist. Consider, however, the release of Google’s mobile operating system Android, and how it is being used by third-party developers to create some very innovative applications for cars.
The first phone to run Android — the G1 from T-mobile — was released a few months ago and is considered to be a potential contender for the iPhone. Like the iPhone OS, Android offers an SDK for developers and a “market” for promoting and selling applications.The following are just a few examples of those applications that are geared toward the automotive industry, pointing to the possible features that could be included in a networked computer-enabled car of the future.
Ecorio, formerly known as Eco2Go, is a green-themed car application that tracks mileage and carbon output. We covered this application back in June as one of the finalists in the Android Developer Challenge. As noted on Ecorio’s website, it is now available to G1 users from the Application Marketplace accessible from their phone. The application logs your mileage and includes an “Offset” feature, as displayed at right, enabling drivers to review the carbon footprint calculated for each trip and to buy offsets for it right from the phone.
This year students at MIT launched a handful of applications for the Android platform as a response to Google’s Android Developer Challenge. One of the applications — KEI — operates as a virtual spare key. It can be used to start a car via the Android-enabled device or unlock doors. The application is secured with 128-bit encryption and enables access to multiple vehicles, or to a single car by multiple users. Future KEI systems may include diagnostic capabilities as well. No information yet on when this app will be released for consumers. However, there are already a few companies that are close to releasing a similar product – see Delphi’s iPhone app, for example.
The forthcoming SugarTrip app, as seen at right, promises it will uses the GPS capabilities of the G1 to help monitor street traffic and share information with other users. The application identifies heavy traffic zones on a given route and suggest alternatives. It can also help a driver to find a car in a parking lot using GPS to save its location (similar to Gpark, which we covered in an earlier article). According to Techcrunch, the company plans to monetize the app, which is free, with geo-targeted advertising. SugarTrip is being promoted as a green application because the company claims it reduces pollution by minimizing traffic congestion.
Toward an open-source dashboard
One of the differentiating aspects between the Android and iPhone platform is that Google’s OS (aka Open Handset Alliance Project) is open source and there are fewer barriers to entry for application developers.
To Apple’s credit, it is able to maintain a certain level of user experience integrity; the iPhone Human Interface Guidelines, for example, serve as a de facto quality control manual for app developers. By contrast, the lack of uniform usability guidelines for Android applications is a notable problem for some applications (missing exit buttons, for example).
The downside to Apple’s rigorous process for application acceptance is that it may create a significant bottle-neck to innovation in mobile application development and cause leading developers to migrate to platforms perceived as more open. Although few application developers are likely to restrict themselves to a single platform, Android may become the preferred platform for small startups looking to quickly get ideas out to market.
Until now we’ve seen mostly prototypes at car shows or cleverly rigged dashboard hacks to illustrate the potential for phone-car mashups. It is entirely plausible that economic conditions will trigger a new wave of innovation in the automobile industry largely triggered by advances in networked computing. At what point, we wonder, will automakers begin to open up computer systems to APIs?
- BMW adds new ‘BMW Search’ service to BMW Assist powered by Google; BMW press release, 09.15.08
- Android; Google Code
- T-Mobile G1 microsite
- Android Market
- When your car is your phone: the convergence of mobile computing and automobiles; headlightblog.com, 06.26.08
- Android Developer Challenge
- Ecorio; download information
- iPhone controls vehicle in real time using Delphi’s concept web app; Gizmodo, 01.10.08
- Search, iPhone and GPS: Envisioning the future of digital automotive; headlightblog.com, 08.22.08
- Android’s SugarTrip takes a new approach to dodging street traffic; Techcrunch, 10.20.08
- iPhone Human Interface Guidelines; Scribd, 02.29.08
- Android on wheels on in the dash could be coming as soon as 2009; Edmunds.com, 09.24.08
- MIT class unloads seven android applications; Android Guys, 05.10.08
- MIT students demonstrate their Android applications; CrunchGear, 05.09.08
- G-Park iPhone app lets the forgetful bookmark their car; Gizmodo, 07.07.08