Can the Auto Industry Make Silicon Valley Developers Feel Welcome?

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smartphone pioneer—Blackberry—and use its QNX operating system. “If Microsoft couldn’t figure it out, how can one gamer or app programmer?” he asks.

McCormick also says it’s not always true that drivers want apps to work the same in the car as they do on smartphones, and he shared survey data with me that supports that claim. “Having Internet access in the vehicle is about the fifth thing down on the list [of customer demands],” he adds. “More than that, people want a car that is safe, efficient, and affordable.”

Additionally, he says the way auto executives talk in private about the future of connected cars and in-vehicle apps is often different from what they say in public. “An auto exec told me it will take 20 years for automated vehicles to hit the market, but he said in a magazine article that it would take five years. Why the disparity? He said, ‘I told you the truth, but I told the media what our public relations department told me to say.’”

McCormick figures that smartphones have come so far and work so well—if it ain’t broke, does it really need fixing? “If a phone can sense information and send it off, do you want information from the car or from the phone?” he asks, saying that developers might put their skills to better use by focusing on advancing automated car technology. “If you can get to that point where cars are driverless, then you’re freed up to interact with your smartphone in the car.”

In order for drivers to use apps comfortably in the car, McCormick says, some of their driving responsibilities must be alleviated. “If developers would do things to reduce driver workload, lots of [automakers] would be interested in that,” he points out. “If you want to develop apps for the car, you need to understand the environment and find ways to be complementary. Only then will you be successful. If you can add value to what’s already there, you’ll find someone inside the company receptive to it.”

Even though there isn’t much agreement on how software developers will design apps for the connected car, there’s plenty of room for working together according to Joel Hoffmann, a strategist for Intel’s Automotive Solutions Division. One of the founding leaders of the GENIVI Alliance–a nonprofit industry organization committed to driving the broad adoption of an open-source, in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) development platform—Hoffmann says McClintock and Gupta are both right.

GENIVI aims to “align requirements and offer certification programs to foster a vibrant open-source IVI community,” which it hopes will result in shortened development cycles, faster time-to-market, and reduced costs for companies developing IVI equipment and software.

When we spoke on the phone two weeks ago, Hoffmann was at a GENIVI meeting that he says was full of developers happily working for the auto industry. “It’s not so much that developers are afraid to get in the automotive business—quite the opposite,” Hoffmann says. “There’s a philosophy in Silicon Valley that encourages employees to work on passion projects, which doesn’t exist in the automotive industry. Those types of developers, who like working in an open environment, are gathering around companies like Google and Apple because they offer more freedom.”

What Hoffmann sees are scores of outside software developers hungry for automotive work. “They’re knocking on doors trying to get in the industry because it’s a huge growth market with very large contracts,” he says. “Car manufacturers are reaching outside of typical workspaces to bring these developers in because they recognize the typical Tier 1 auto supplier employee might have difficulty keeping up with the newest technology.”

Though they recognize the need for outside talent, auto manufacturers aren’t willing to compromise the safety and functionality of their products by revealing the whole operating system to third-party developers. For instance, Hoffmann imagines, what if an app designed by a third party inadvertently caused a car’s airbags to deploy at inappropriate times?

“The legal issue is definitely relevant,” Hoffmann says of Gupta’s concerns. “And the jury’s still out on how to do this. Nobody has completely figured it out.”

Hoffmann says GENIVI is evangelizing for a different option entirely: An open platform that is welcoming to developers working inside the auto industry to solve specific technical challenges and that also facilitates collaboration with developers from outside the industry. GENIVI is focusing on the Linux operating system because it’s both flexible and modular.

“I’m advocating for more people to get involved with open-source platforms,” he says. “When cars hit the market using the Linux operating system and the cost savings can be demonstrated, the market will align. Linux isn’t a developer environment you can build a car on, but it’s great for experimenting and dreaming up new ideas. You can create innovations on a non-commercial platform that can be applied to a commercial system later.”

Hoffmann applauds Range Rover for using Linux to work with outside developers, and hopes to see other automakers take a similar path.

“Smaller developers with good ideas can create an app on a small device and someday turn that into something they can sell,” he says. “That’s a significant change in the auto industry, and the reason it’s moving forward is because of intense competitive pressure from smartphone makers. Some car companies are pretending to be open, but when it comes down to it they fall back into secrecy. At some point, every car will have to support the ability to plug in an Android phone or iPhone. The question is, what will the level of integration be?”

In yet another point of view, John Ellis, a global technologist and head of Ford’s developer program, says he sees two main challenges ahead when it comes to … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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