Connected Cars Show New Signs of Life, and Seattle Companies Benefit

8/8/12Follow @curtwoodward

For years, it seemed that most car owners were nowhere near the computer-laden machines of the future promised back in the days of “Knight Rider.” Sure, a rich guy could get a savvy computer system in his ride. But for your average Joe, an iPod connection was a feature to brag about.

Today, that’s changing—and you can chalk up another victory for the smartphone revolution.

As consumers gobble up a growing array of powerful mobile devices and apps, they’re coming to expect much more from their cars. The traditionally hidebound auto industry is taking note, pushing ahead with a new generation of in-car software and web-connected apps.

And the change promises to be very good for some innovative businesses in the Seattle region.

“The most interesting spot in technology right now is the confluence of an automobile and wireless services,” says Paul Sciame, General Manager of Bellevue’s Tweddle Group Technologies. “Automakers have been around for over 100 years, and they have a very prescribed approach to the business. The product cycles are very long. We’re trying to marry that approach with one of the fastest-moving technology spaces, that being mobile services.”

The Puget Sound has a long history with this segment of the auto industry, known to insiders as the “connected car.” Many of the seeds in this area were planted by Microsoft’s pioneering work with in-car computer systems, including the partnership that produced the Sync system for Ford.

Sync was the first major attempt by a mass-market automaker to develop computer-like software services for the car, and it got the market’s attention. Now, Toyota is entering the race with its own Entune connected car platform, and other manufacturers are expected to follow suit. (Like Ford and many other in-car systems, Toyota uses the Microsoft automotive operating system as its base.)

Tweddle Group Technologies, a fast-growing provider of software and cloud services for automakers’ in-car computer systems, has definitely benefited from this shift.

The company, which now has more than 100 employees, is one of the major contributors to Entune. The platform uses a driver’s smartphone as the connection point, and pulls in selected apps and functions to be used while driving. Everything from dinner reservations and traffic reports, to weather, music, and even movie tickets are available.

Tweddle Group Technologies provides the communications system that connects the in-car computer to the smartphone, and uses the phone’s mobile network to connect to servers that provide the apps. The company worked with other Seattle-area companies on the project, including Bellevue’s VoiceBox Technologies (speech recognition) and Kirkland’s Inrix (traffic information).

Finding partners to bring useful applications to the car wasn’t always so easy, notes Sciame, who worked on earlier versions of the connected car systems at Microsoft.

“Back in the early 2000s, there really wasn’t a plethora of wireless services to work with,” he says. “So we were actually having people build services specifically for that application.”

The explosion of mobile computing has changed all that. The rise of the smartphone has greatly influenced the way automakers see their products, just as it permanently altered the market for personal computers.

But with rapid change comes plenty of questions.

Higher-end manufacturers will often build the wireless connection … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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