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4 mobile platforms for the auto industry: Get up to speed!

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Matthew David Digital Leader, Accenture
 

The car is getting smart. The latest Tesla can drive itself on the freeway. In most cars, the radio has morphed into an interactive dashboard, and the data in your vehicle can now reduce your car insurance premium. The quest to make a smart car is being driven (no pun intended) by four companies:

  • Google
  • Apple
  • BlackBerry
  • Ford

 As a developer, how can you leverage a whole new platform to deliver solutions? I'll focus on three common concepts to answer that question:

  • Safety while driving—A smart-car experience can also be a safe-car experience.
  • Voice commands—Voice technology is advancing rapidly and is used to dictate commands.
  • Tactile response—Buttons and knobs replace touch-sensitive screens to give a driver the ability to feel for the correct command without looking.

The universal goal in all three of these areas is to keep the road safe.

Google: Android Auto

Google has essentially two plays to get you to build apps for the car: Android and Android Auto. As you might expect, the first solution, Android, is the same full-functioning version of Android you have running your phone. The problem is, it's simply not safe to look down at your phone to tap a touch-sensitive screen when you are driving on the freeway at 70 mph.

The better solution for the car is Android Auto. Backing Android Auto is the Google Open Automotive Alliance, a large group of companies that support Android in the car. A developer can access all of the information needed to build solutions at http://developer.android.com/auto/index.html.

At this site, developers will notice that Google focuses on two types of Android Auto app:

  • Audio apps
  • Messaging apps

It's simply not safe to look down at your phone to tap a touch-sensitive screen when you are driving on the freeway at 70 mph.

As can be expected, developers create apps for Android Auto using Android Studio. Not only does Android Studio come with rapid-launch templates to speed up development, but it also provides all of the testing tools specific for a car. One such tool is the Desktop Head Unit (http://developer.android.com/tools/help/desktop-head-unit.html), or DHU, which emulates the screen in a car. Each smart car has a smart radio, or DHU, that runs apps. The DHU emulator is a quick way to test apps for different smart-radio configurations.

Apple: CarPlay

As you might expect, Apple has a different approach to Google for the car. CarPlay is a carefully managed environment designed to make apps that are consistent and easier for the driver to use. Note that in contrast to the iTunes App Store for the iPhone, there is no open app market for CarPlay.

A developer can submit an app and work with Apple to get it approved for use in a car. This approach is successful for Apple, with every major vehicle manufacturer supporting CarPlay. Details on CarPlay can be found at https://www.apple.com/ios/carplay/available-models/.

BlackBerry: QNX

Surprise! BlackBerry is on a list. In this instance, the solution is QNX. QNX is a mature operating system that had been popular for many years in the auto industry. Companies such as GM are using QNX as the foundation for solutions such as OnStar.

Developers can, as with Android, create apps for QNX using HTML5 or C++.

HTML5 apps are built using WebKit as the foundation HTML rendering. Solution development is very similar to WebOS or Tizen. Eclipse is the tool developers use to create QNX apps. To bundle the apps, however, you must have a license from QNX. The following QNX site provides all of the information needed: http://www.qnx.com/download/group.html?programid=26076.

Companies such as GM as using QNX as the foundation for solutions such as OnStar.

The number of HTML5 features you can use depends on which version of what car radio you are developing for. The challenge is that most smart radios do not have regular updates. Indeed, many cars run with no updates to their radios for years, which leaves the driver with an outdated experience. There is a good reason for this: To refresh the smart radio in a GM car requires a trip the local GM dealer. And why don't people do this? Have you been to a car dealership recently?

Ford: SYNC

The introduction of Uber is sending a resounding message to the auto industry: How people pay for and use cars is changing. Ford sees a future where people no longer own cars, which is why Ford is investing in developers.

Launched in 2008, SYNC is Ford’s solution for the smart-car radio. It has gone through evolutions (there was a Microsoft version of SYNC that Ford is now distancing itself from). However, the most significant release was announced at CES 2014: SYNC 3. The foundation to SYNC 3 is QNX, but unlike the GM implementation of QNX, Ford is going to lengths to make SYNC 3 developer-friendly.

The average consumer keeps a car for seven years. This means that it will be a decade before a winner comes forward. 

Attention to the developer's needs is clearly demonstrated on the Ford SYNC 3 website, https://developer.ford.com. The site is loaded with tools that make it easier to build SYNC 3 solutions such as:

  • Open Lab Alliance—A place to learn and test how to build SYNC solutions
  • SYNC App Link—A suite of APIs to rapidly built out SYNC apps
  • Open XC—Open-source interface to build SYNC solutions
  • Smart Device Link—Platform that makes it easy for SYNC apps to communicate to one another and to mobile devices

Ford is setting a benchmark for how to engage with developers that other companies should emulate.

Hitting the road: Where do you go from here?

So many choices! Android Auto, CarPlay, QNX, and SYNC. Which do you choose?

The slow pace of rotation in the car industry means that this question will not be answered anytime soon. I simply mean that the average consumer keeps a car for seven years, so it will be a decade before a winner comes forward. In the meantime, it is clear that the auto manufacturers are hedging their bets by supporting multiple systems. Current Ford cars come with Sync, CarPlay, and Android Auto.

The bottom line is, if you're going to get into the auto app game, you need to learn how to build solutions for all four new platforms.

Image credit: Flickr

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