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 right into the car, rather than relying on smartphones to do all the work. But mass-market car makers might be more likely to lean on the smartphone as the connection, which could really eat through a user’s monthly data allotment if they’re streaming a lot of music or news content.

Perhaps a bigger question is which industry will actually wind up driving the innovation—and how that will affect manufacturing timetables. An automaker’s typical product lifecycle is three to five years, whereas a phone is updated every 12 to 18 months, notes mobile consultant Chetan Sharma, who has worked with several automakers.

“To be relevant, [automakers] have to adopt the pace of the cellphone industry,” Sharma says. “So either the new innovation needs to be an aftermarket product that can keep up with the changing pace of apps, or it just needs to be handed over to the cell phone.”

That’s potentially scary for an established industry. But there is some forward thinking going on.

Bryan Trussel, CEO of Seattle location-sharing app Glympse, saw that firsthand in his company’s recent partnership with Mercedes-Benz. After only a few months of discussions, Glympse’s application was on its way to being included as a part of the onboard computing system in the new Mercedes A Class.

The speed impressed Trussel. “Even a year ago … being able to take a third-party technology and have that in the dash of your car? Unheard of,” he says.

There’s good reason for that kind of quick reaction. As today’s teenagers grow up in a world of smartphones that can do almost anything, there’s a growing assumption that they’ll turn into sophisticated drivers who expect much more from their cars, as well.

“The auto world, I think, is about to undergo as dramatic a change as smartphones,” Trussel says. “The speed to market, the rate of innovation, the partnerships, it’s just all going to fundamentally transform. It’s not too dissimilar to what happened with the carriers.”

Although a lot has changed in a short time, there is still plenty of road ahead before the automotive industry fully embraces next-generation connected car services.

Kush Parikh, a senior vice president of business development at Inrix, says the connected car sector will be a multibillion-dollar industry. But it’s also going to be three to seven years before the services are truly mainstream, he says.

Some of that delay has to do with safety. Carmakers simply can’t free up everything a mobile device might be able to offer while someone’s driving, and that means their platforms also can’t be as wide open as a smartphone, Parikh says.

“It is a trusted-partner type of scenario,” he says. “You’re not going to see thousands and thousands of apps in the vehicle. You’re going to see dozens, maybe, in its heyday. And it’s still early times, right? That’s the reality.”

But there are still some pretty amazing ideas sitting just off the horizon. A premium car brand is currently asking the traffic experts at Inrix to look at data from its cars’ windshield wipers and braking systems, for instance, to see what the company might be able to divine about traffic conditions.

In the future, why couldn’t a connected car talk with a traffic monitoring app and then push an alert to your smartphone to wake you up early if the route to work is particularly clogged? When you get behind the wheel early on a Monday morning, shouldn’t the system just know that you’re heading to work?

“One of the ways to really think about this is, at the end of the day, the car is really becoming another node on the network,” Inrix spokesman Jim Bak says. “It’s the ultimate mobile device.”

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

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