How to develop connected car applications

5 Approaches to Connected Car App Development

by Rick Martin
The growing popularity of connected cars is driving development in a burgeoning new industry: connected car app development. PWC forecasts that sales of connected car services will reach $155.9 billion by 2022, with driver assistance and safety applications capturing the greatest market share. As automobile manufacturers seek ways to offer drivers more infotainment and other connected car solutions, developing a car app may well be the best way for developers to tap a new market in an age-old industry. Although the potential ROI is great for companies that build an app for connected cars, success in this rapidly-changing field requires careful consideration. Unlike developing apps that are designed to only run on a mobile device, connected vehicle apps can target a multitude of technology layers. As fully autonomous vehicles emerge, the need for advanced connected car apps will increase exponentially. In this article, we will examine five pathways developers can take to penetrate this emerging market.

On-Board Human-Machine Interface (HMI) Apps

As automobile companies strive to grow the connected vehicle industry, they face a dilemma. They can keep all the new connected car technology embedded in the vehicle’s dash, or they can allow the entire platform, minus the LCD touchscreen, to be off-loaded to drivers’ smartphones. In a moment, we will discuss the trend toward smartphone-based infotainment systems. For now, let us look at why manufacturers may or may not wish to keep core infotainment software onboard. The primary incentive for vehicle manufacturers to keep the connected car platform embedded in the vehicle is earning potential. For manufacturers that can lead the pack with innovative connected car apps and related functionality, there will surely be a market of buyers willing to pay a premium for such features. Keeping the platform proprietary can close out market share for rival companies. However, despite the preference of come automakers to maintain complete control of their infotainment and HMI systems, there is a drawback to doing so. Since the life cycle of cars is much longer than that of cell phones, embedded systems will need be updated regularly in order to compete with ever-changing smartphone technology. While keeping onboard software updated and adding new features should be achievable over the life of the vehicle, the hardware will lag behind. During the life of a vehicle, smartphone processing power and speed will likely undergo a manifold increase. At the same time, the onboard infotainment computer hardware will quickly become legacy systems that will eventually limit what new applications can do. As buyers realize that the premium infotainment features they paid for don’t remain premium for long, market share could quickly shift to automakers that use a bring-your-own-device approach.

Smartphone Applications

Smartphone-Based Apps for Onboard Infotainment Platforms

Without question, smartphones have been assimilated into mainstream consciousness. In fact, it is probably safe to say they have become the de facto way people communicate with each other, share photos, access bank accounts, and browse the Internet. Since so many consumers are comfortable using the smartphone as their interface to the world around them, it only makes sense that smartphones should let them interface with their connected cars, also. At least, automobile manufacturers think so. As connected car designers explore ways to encourage 3rd party developers to help build the connected car ecosystem, smartphone apps seem to offer a win-win solution. Smartphone apps for connected cars provide a relatively easy way for developers to penetrate the market, while satisfying automobile manufacturers’ earnest desire to keep their core systems isolated from non-OEM software. As mobile app developers ponder the kinds of apps they can create for connected cars, auto companies such as the Ford Motor Company are more than willing to lend a guiding hand. Not only do car companies benefit by helping developers create apps that are compatible with their OEM systems, but they also want to keep developers focused. Initial efforts by mobile app developers revealed that they often want to offer too much functionality to drivers. By working with developers to improve their understanding of connected car mobile app requirements, they hope to shape developers’ thinking. With connected cars, apps must meet some requirements that are not factors when developing other apps, such as the following:
  • Voice must be the primary interface between driver and connected car apps, with minimal driver interaction with either the smartphone or onboard infotainment system.
  • Video, advertising, games, or requirements for extensive reading or text inputting while driving are unacceptable.
  • The purpose and functioning of apps must not distract the driver from their duty to drive safely.
While auto companies are more than willing to help developers make their apps ready for the road, apps that fail to meet these guidelines will also fail the necessary approval of automobile companies. Given the immature state of the connected car ecosystem, Ford suggests that developers focus more on adapting their existing apps to work with connected vehicles, rather than creating new apps from scratch. While that view may represent an overabundance of caution, it highlights car manufactures’ desire to get connected car off on a safe footing.

Phone-Based Infotainment Systems

Not all OEM platforms limit smartphones to hosting apps. Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Baidu CarLife, and MirrorLink go beyond and utilize the smartphone as the Infotainment system, itself, with the vehicle offering only the dashboard LCD touchscreen display. Termed Over The Top (OTT) systems, with these platforms, the full power of the smartphone is available for creating infotainment features. At this time, compatibility is an issue, and smartphone-based platforms work only with compatible vehicles. Some vehicle manufacturers are exploring making their vehicles more cross-platform compatible. OTT systems also present some safety concerns. Since OTT platforms limit connectivity between the smartphone platform and the onboard computer, the vehicle cannot disable apps that could pose a distraction while the vehicle is moving. As you might expect, hybrid systems have begun to emerge that tap the advantages of both onboard and OTT platforms.

Application Programming Interface (API) Development

Consumers, today, expect to transition across information channels seamlessly. Onboard GPS, car-to-phone Bluetooth capability, and traffic alerts are no longer enough. Auto buyers now expect to enjoy many of their mobile apps while driving their vehicle. As automakers endeavor to interface mobile apps and services with vehicle infotainment systems, the need for some hand-shaking software arises — better known as APIs. With mobile apps, broadband Internet connectivity, and automotive IoT technology all on the table, the development of APIs to connect all the parts opens tremendous opportunities for app developers. Not only does the power of APIs to bind together different technologies open the door for innovation in the mobile app market, but developers are needed to develop the APIs that automakers will incorporate into their 3rd-party-developer packages. What this means for the consumer is extended interactions and cross-platform compatibility. For example, by incorporating different APIs for each mobile device operating system, a vehicle could interface with all popular smartphones, rather than limiting compatibility to only one. And automakers are learning early the value in coordinating with app developers. Ford, for example, has developed an API library called AppLink that developers can use to access Ford’s connectivity communications system, called Sync. Not only can developers profit from creating after-market API solutions, but auto companies seem willing to outsource the development of their onboard APIs to 3rd-party developers. As APIs become increasingly adopted, automakers’ chief concerns are that APIs do not jeopardize the security of vehicle core systems, and that they do not create privacy concerns, which is a key concern of consumers.

Onboard Diagnostic System (OBD-II)

Since 1996, most vehicles driven in the United States have been required to include the Onboard Diagnostic System, the current version known as OBD-II. Although the OBD-II system is a one-way data port and cannot be used to control vehicle systems, the information it provides can empower application development. Amid the emergence of the connected car market, vendors are already tapping the power of OBD-II to create useful apps and devices. By analyzing the real-time data on engine performance, fuel useage, throttle position, acceleration and braking, and many other systems, products can be developed that do the following, and much more:
  • Provide drivers with extended information on vehicle performance.
  • Offer graphical representations of performance data.
  • Assist fleet owners in managing fleets more efficiently and with improved safety.
  • Managing and autoscheduling regular and emergency maintenance service.
By combining OBD-II data with smartphone capabilities, apps can tie vehicle performance and operation data with GPS data for monitoring teen drivers. Further, insurance companies may soon offer reduced rates to drivers who use OBD-II apps to demonstrate good driving habits.

SmartDeviceLink (SDL)

SmartDeviceLink is an open source version of Ford’s AppLink API library. Toyota has adopted SDL for its next-generation of vehicles and others are sure to follow. Toyota and others that embrace SDL may have learned a lesson from the Microsoft/Apple iconic computer battle: the more open your platform is, the more other companies will build products for it. With SDL, automakers can benefit from the emergence of new mobile apps that reside on the smartphone but provide extended features for the connected car. With Ford’s huge market share, and with Toyota adopting what is essentially a derivative of Ford’s API platform, developers who innovate using SDL are assured a market that is likely to survive the growing pains of connected car technology.

How Ignite Can Help?

The connected car market offers exciting opportunities for app developers. We have seen just a few of the ways apps will drive growth in this new industry, No doubt, there are yet unfathomed opportunities that will emerge as connected car technology matures. But success in this competitive new market takes more than the standard approach to app development; it takes a thorough understanding of automotive technology. Ignite is an expert in mobile app development and automotive technology, making us well positioned to develop your connected car application. Whether you intend to tap the power of automotive IoT, or to fill a niche in the automotive API space, we have the experience to bring your product to life, and the commitment to stay with you until you get your share of the market. If you need a technology partner who offers expert software development services at outsource pricing, why not contact us today for a free consultation?