“We are talking about changing the car’s character from being introverted to being extroverted. So the car is just more talkative,” he says.
To make this a reality requires at least two important things to happen. First, car manufacturers need to make the data from their cars available, ideally in a standard format. And secondly, the data needs to be easily shared.
The first of these problems is again being tackled by manufacturers like Ford. Working with New York City-based developers Bug Labs, the car manufacturer has released a prototype system called OpenXC. Drivers install a small piece of hardware in their car which taps into the vehicles sensors and control units and spits them out in a format that can be read by compatible apps on Android.
“OpenXC allows us to investigate what developers can do when we present the car in the same way as they see a smartphone software platform,” said Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader for Ford Research and Innovation, when the system debuted earlier this year. The system has since been distributed to firms and universities and has already spawned its first “vehicle-aware” applications.
One of the first was created by India's HCL Technologies and allows a driver to automatically update select contacts with his or her location. The idea is that by monitoring location and speed data from the vehicle, the app can determine if the driver will be late for a meeting and can then send an email or text message without any driver intervention.
That last bit is important. Car manufacturers are all too aware that they need to minimise distractions from these systems while driving, hence the common use of voice recognition. They maintain that many drivers already use web, communication and entertainment services in their cars, so these systems actually reduce the risk of distractions and increase safety. However, it is unlikely that it will be left to car makers to decide what is and isn’t appropriate. Already, regulators are beginning to scrutinise these systems and earlier this year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a report that recommended voluntary guidelines for car manufacturers to reduce the risk of distraction.
Assuming that an acceptable solution can be found, the second part of the puzzle that needs to fall into place is how data is shared. At the moment, most manufacturers use proprietary computer systems, meaning that data produced by one car manufacturer is basically of little use to another. This becomes problematic for third-party app developers who would need to rewrite their code for each and every producer. But Beiker says that could soon change.
“I am expecting to see more and more applications that communicate with the vehicle directly, through a standardised interface,” he says. “I can very well imagine that over the next couple of years car companies might open up their firewall a little more, and say ‘here is our app store’.”
One project attempting to solve the problem is the EU-sponsored Cooperatives Vehicle Infrastructure Systems project, which aims to develop a “universal communications module” that can read data from any vehicle. The project has already published the architecture of the system it hopes to use.
It envisages that data would be channelled in two ways: to other cars and over mobile connections and DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) networks – a wi-fi like technology that is currently used for electronic road toll connection, for example. Car-to-car communication could be useful in safety systems, for example, allowing a car to prevent a driver pulling out of a blind junction if another vehicle is approaching or forming the basis of a peer-to-peer collision warning system to spot and advise about hazards on the road ahead.