Trend-Spotting at Telematics Detroit
Telematics Detroit is like most other small, insular trade shows. In a suburban convention center a few miles outside the Motor City last week, automotive technology suppliers like Elektrobit and Airbiquity occupied booths alongside better-known brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Nokia. The two-day conference also featured talks and panels, including The Evolution of the Telematics Ecosystem and HTML5 for Automotive – A Solution, Not a Browser. While some of these are about as exciting as watching grass grow and the entire exhibit floor can be walked in about 15 minutes, Telematics Detroit is a great place gauge the state of the connected car and spot trends. And this year’s show saw several developments that could soon reshape in-car technology.
The show was preceded by a large wireless carrier nailing a stake in the space, and ended with the federal government announcing its intent to lay down more guidelines to regulate in-car electronics to avoid driver distraction. The show kicked off with a keynote proclaiming that drivers don’t want social media in the car, even though several automakers are rushing to provide it. And Telematics Detroit offered a glimpse of what suppliers are pitching to automakers – and what may be in cars in the next few years.
Automotive infotainment software provider QNX, for example, provides the blank-canvas, back-end systems that automakers can use to personalize user interfaces, and the company is something of a bellwether for the future of the connected car. At the show, QNX used a tricked-out Jeep Wrangler to demonstrate the company’s new Car 2 platform. Check out the video below for a few highlights of the system. One is that Car 2 supports HTML5, allowing automakers and developers to implement applications much faster and across different OEM and smartphone platforms. Not only does this potentially help break down the walled garden approach that automakers – and particularly Ford and Apple – have taken to automotive infotainment, but it could also allow cars to better keep up with consumer electronics technology.
QNX also showed a Car 2 feature that lets drivers share the music they’re listening to with Facebook friends. Social media on wheels was a common theme at the show, with Ford and Facebook teaming up for a talk detailing how the two companies have been co-hacking to bring Facebook features to the car. And Mercedes-Benz parked a sleek SL550 in its booth to show off the new mbrace2 telematics system, which includes Facebook and Twitter access. But Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner, revealed in his keynote that an upcoming report by his firm shows that social media is way down on most consumers’ car-tech wish lists. Koslowski said instead that they want “specific applications that make sense when driving,” including real-time weather reports forecasts and parking information.
Transportation Secretary and self-confessed Luddite Ray LaHood also made it clear that his agency doesn’t want social media in the dash, either. Coinciding with the last day of the show was the release of National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving. The main focus of the document is to draw attention to the issue by raising public awareness. But it also states that NHTSA is “considering … guidelines to address portable devices not built into the vehicle, including aftermarket GPS navigation systems, smartphones, electronic tablets and pads, and other mobile communications devices.” And it adds that a Phase 3 may address voice-activated controls “to further minimize distraction in factory-installed aftermarket and portable devices.” At a press conference announcing the Blueprint, LaHood also put automakers on notice regarding social networking behind the wheel. “We want to make sure they understand … that the ability to download Facebook, the ability to access information while you’re driving the car is not exactly a safe way to drive,” he said.
LaHood may have been using his bully pulpit to spotlight brought-aboard devices – and the connection to social media that they provide – since the wireless industry and car companies are becoming quite cozy. Verizon revealed plans two weeks ago to buy Hughes Telematics, the supplier of Mercedes-Benz’s mbrace system, for $612 million in cash. And on the first day of the show Verizon also announced the formation of the 4G Venture Forum for Connected Cars with BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota to develop ways to integrate LTE connectivity into vehicles and promote the technology among automotive suppliers and app developers. Conspicuously absent from the Verizon announcement – and from Telematics Detroit in general – was GM and the company’s telematics cash cow OnStar. The two companies have worked together for years to provide hands-free calling to OnStar subscribers, and recently showed off LTE connected car technology at CES 2012.
The overall takeaway from Telematics Detroit is that, as the space expands and becomes more important to both car companies and consumers, bigger players from the tech world are eyeing a piece of the potentially lucrative connected-car pie. Chances are you’ll be hearing the word “telematics” a lot more in the future, even if the average consumer doesn’t exactly know what it means.