Connected car standards are vital
Written by: Tom Blackie | Published:
RealVNC’s MirrorLink technology uses an open standard designed by and for automotive firms

If autonomous and connected vehicles are to rule the road a host of stakeholders need to work together to build solutions. Tom Blackie explains how connected car standards can benefit everyone

Arguably, the modern connected car really began to take off when Ford Sync was announced in 2007. This joint venture with Microsoft allowed end users to make hands-free phone calls and radio adjustments via voice command, provided information from accelerometers for diagnostics, and called out recovery and emergency services after an accident.

Today’s vision of the car is a world away from Henry Ford’s Model T; a vehicle designed to get passengers from A to B in a relatively fast and affordable way. The car is now seen as an opportunity for them to browse the Web, download movies, play games, or finish up slides for that important business meeting, all while transporting them and their families safely and efficiently.

Car manufacturers want to take care of their customers by providing all the safety and comfort they can. On top of this, the ability to collect a variety of analytics and telematics data, to diagnose and fix problems remotely, and to upgrade integral software from the Cloud are all advantages enabled by increased in-car connectivity.

Consumers and manufacturers are asking for more from their vehicles, but as cars grow more complicated and intelligent the closer mechanical and software engineering industries need to work. One complication of this is that cars have a five-year-plus development cycle, remain in production for 10 years, and have a life well beyond that, while new mobile devices are created in less than a year and are all but obsolete two years after going to market.

Put succinctly: there is now a mélange of businesses in the automotive picture, all with different priorities and business objectives. This creates the interesting problem of how to bring these industries together while avoiding a clash of business models and wildly differing development cycles.

The need for technology standards
It is no surprise that car manufacturers want full control of their customers’ experience. They want to be in charge of all safety aspects of their vehicles, what the installed software does, and how any vehicular data is collected and used. The value of the specific implementation of these ideas, combined with the strong relationship between manufacturer and customer, means privacy is a big concern. For this reason many businesses have created proprietary software such as BMW Drive, GM OnStar, and Ford Sync. This has led to a huge fragmentation within the connected car industry, with each manufacturer taking their own road.

Even within a single automaker different teams working on different models can take significantly different approaches. This ‘walled garden’ proprietary path may not be a workable long-term solution. Like Bluetooth, USB and IP, when connectivity between a multitude of devices is in demand (be this a mobile device in a car, or many cars connected to the Cloud) there is a real need for technology standards, not just at the physical level, but all the way up the stack to the apps that provide driver and passenger utilities.

Standards ensure interoperability between devices and promote a safe driving experience. This will help to increase the longevity of the technology, which is essential given the extensive shelf life of cars. It has the added benefit of reducing the cost of hardware and peripherals in the long run, and fuelling healthy competition between businesses. Moreover, a published specification forms a strong foundation for future requirements while ensuring backwards compatibility. In no way do technology standards prevent companies from creating competitive differentiation – they allow manufacturers to focus their resources on areas where they can create truly unique capabilities that sit on top of a shared exchange interface.

The MirrorLink standard is a great example of what can be achieved when communicating between a mobile device and a car. MirrorLink is an open standard – designed by the automotive industry for the automotive industry – to enable communications between vehicles, mobile devices and apps. It allows access to vehicular data in a way policed and controlled by car manufacturers. Although no-one knows what devices might be around in 10 or even five years’ time, it is relatively certain that they will be able to conform to the MirrorLink standard, and will continue to work with older vehicles that deployed MirrorLink when they first left the factory. This is in contrast to the proprietary approaches being promoted by device manufacturers that may or may not maintain backwards compatibility, and will certainly not work outside of their own products.

While proprietary software may offer some short-term advantages it is difficult to see how it can be sustained in an increasingly connected automotive ecosystem.

There are three main challenges and priorities when discussing the connected car.

Safety and liability
There are already numerous apps on the market with built-in safety precautions. These include various advanced driver assistance systems such as detecting when a driver falls asleep, correcting sudden lane changes, automatic braking, aiding with blind spots and so on. These human-assisted stepping stones are necessary if we are to overcome the huge safety challenges involved in producing fully autonomous vehicles. Until then any in-car user interface must not distract the driver, which generally means blocking certain apps, suppressing moving images, and always using large fonts and icons for increased ‘glanceability’.

In the event of a crash the connected car also complicates the problem of liability. Is it the fault of the car maker, the app developers, the app stores, the equipment suppliers, or the government? There is potential here for damage to brand reputation. Having reliable guidelines and specifications – applicable to a diverse range of apps, vehicles and scenarios – is paramount to the success of road and vehicular safety.

There are significant and very real concerns about hackers initiating traffic jams, taking full control of cars and causing acts of terrorism. Worries about emerging technology and the increasing number of in-car connectivity mechanisms are only exacerbated by the number of legacy systems and outdated on- board diagnostics ports in the large pool of in- use vehicles. Overcoming these issues is a vast challenge that could benefit significantly from industry standardisation.

Valuable information (such as location, speed and driving style) can be dispensed to all the main stakeholders down the value chain. App developers, phone vendors, mobile operators, back-end systems and equipment suppliers, car manufacturers, advertisers, governments, insurance companies, traffic services, infrastructure planners, emergency services – there are many parties who believe they have some ownership of this data and would like to gain value from it.

Although it is not entirely clear how this will be monetised, it is likely to be a huge revenue opportunity and automotive firms aren’t going to simply give this chance away. This all, however, comes at a high cost to consumer privacy, and there is uncertainty about how far businesses and customers will be willing to go.

With so many challenges and complications for the connected car vision organisations will benefit from working together on technology standards and infrastructure. Driver-assisted stepping stones will enable us to meet our ultimate objective of full automation, while allowing us to efficiently and responsibly manage the huge volume of data available.

Small wins
The challenge is to effectively collect, manage and analyse data coming from individual vehicles, and any inter-vehicular interactions, for the purposes of traffic flow, safety, insurance metrics, fleet management and telematics.

One environmentally-significant example is the new electric taxis in London. With all taxis that can’t switch to zero emissions by 2018 set to be banned, vehicle engineering firm Frazer-Nash is running its electric Metrocabs in and around London while

collecting valuable telematics data. “Collecting data allows us to analyse patterns and improve our products,” says Sheban Sidiqqi, marketing executive at Frazer-Nash. “We can make informed decisions about the operational cycle; ensuring that our engine is off in places of high pollution. We can also provide this data to local authorities to help them make informed decisions about low emission zones... Ultimately it will make a big difference to air quality.”

For example, Frazer-Nash is able to map when its vehicles are in zero emission mode and when they are using the petrol engine. This allows it to ensure that operation of the petrol engine only happens when outside exclusion zones or heavily pedestrianised areas of London.

During recent trials Frazer-Nash discovered that its zero emission mode was in use 75 per cent of the time at speeds less than 30mph (which corresponds to 96 per cent of total driving time). This kind of deployment shows how important it is to be able to efficiently handle large connected vehicle datasets. Here they are being used to demonstrate how upcoming emission regulations in London can be met, which in turn is helping to drive standards and improve the environment.

Real-time data handling is vital, and another good example can be found in the agricultural industry. Farm managers, dealers and support technicians can now remotely connect to agricultural vehicles to dynamically monitor and maximise vehicle efficiency and crop yield. The solution provides the ability to measure the weight of a crop, and automatically responds by cutting higher or lower, or by altering the threshing speed. This would not be possible without real-time bi- directional connectivity.

Some emergency services have also improved incident response times by deploying connectivity solutions inside their vehicles. Access to maps of buildings, crime databases and other relevant information can be pushed remotely to emergency service vehicles to help them prepare for each situation. The benefits to community safety are clear, but this must be balanced against the need for secure data protection and the establishment of industry best practice.

Right: Thanks to their on-board technology, Metrocabs can be geographically tracked in real time

Businesses and organisations all down the value chain must be able to handle, interpret and monetise huge amounts of data. Aside from the mathematical, statistical and computing power considerations, enabling reliable connectivity for data transfer while on the road is a major challenge that will require continual assessment and improvement.

The future
Industry focus is now firmly on the ‘internet of moving things’. Fully autonomous agricultural vehicles already reap vast fields of crops for days on end in the midwest US and Canada. Although the machines are unmanned and the process highly refined, they are connected to data centres where their status is continually monitored and adjustments can be made in real time. Since this technology is already mature it is likely that fully automated lorries will replace the transportation of goods before automation is widely adopted in other vehicles.

Once cars can talk to other cars effectively this automated army of vehicles will become a safer alternative to driving as we know it. The efficiency of such a system would ease congestion and CO2 emissions, and with the ability to connect to the internet and other devices passengers will see it as a much more attractive travel option.

There are a number of hurdles to overcome for this future ecosystem, on top of all the aforementioned safety, security, data protection and privacy issues. One of the greatest, from an industry perspective, is the sudden arrival of new entrants. Healthy competition is always a good thing, but traditional car manufacturers must be nimble to compete in an increasingly crowded market. Take Tesla, which improved electric car technology in only four or five years in contrast to the traditional 10-year lifecycle of vehicle research and development.

New revolutionary technology is disruptive so agility is needed from all sides to keep up the pace. Established Western automotive firms are currently being squeezed by rapidly- moving new technology and low cost cars coming out of Asia. A decline in car sales among younger generations, who are moving towards shared-use and zero-ownership paradigms, also contributes to the pressure. Their reactions to these issues will be key to the future of the industry.

As our vision of fully autonomous vehicles finds its way to market transportation will be forever changed. The driver-assisted stepping stones being created today are imperative to this progress, and accepted technology standards are critical to success. It is extremely difficult to imagine how the interactions required by a new, complex ecosystem would operate without a standards framework.

All in all the future looks very exciting, but there are many bumps in the road ahead. Fully autonomous vehicles will surely be realised only when technology vendors and the automotive industry find common ground.

Many of these topics are explored and debated within various industry work groups, one of which is the Cambridge Wireless Automotive and Transport Special Interest Group, whose next event is in London on July 5. See

About the author
Tom Blackie is VP Mobile and Automotive at RealVNC. He is also a Cambridge Wireless Automotive and Transport Special Interest Group champion.

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