10 years after: Are my telematics prognostications still roadworthy?

The year was 2001. The brave new world of in-car telematics and infotainment was still in its infancy. People were starting to realize, however, that software was going to play a huge role in this market, and that made them a little nervous.

It's easy to understand why. For most people, software was synonymous with crash-prone operating systems running on the desktop — and who wanted that kind of reliability in the dashboard?

One thing led to another, and someone asked me to write an article on the issue. Here's what I wrote, with input from some of my QNX colleagues, and I believe that much of it still applies. Among other things, the article predicted that automakers would use telematics/infotainment systems as product differentiators — have you seen a Ford SYNC commercial lately? The article also helps explain why a high reliability operating system like QNX Neutrino has since become a dominant player in the car infotainment scene.

But enough of that. Check out the article and let me know what you think:


Can Innovation and Reliability Share the Road?
     Do you ever notice how car commercials stress style over substance? Brand X, we are assured, builds excitement. Brand Y makes you want to tear off your necktie and play hookey. And Brand Z is so sporty looking that young women love to run their hands along its, ahem, spoiler.

     Of course, it often makes marketing sense to sell the sizzle, not the steak. But as it turns out, automakers have little choice. Competing brands of automobiles can have so much in common that, in many cases, a car’s styling really is the only differentiator worth flaunting.

     Imagine, then, if a technology could help automakers add real — and distinctive — value to their products. Such is the promise of in-vehicle telematics. Daimler-Chrysler certainly sees the potential: they’ve recently unveiled a hands-free telematics system that allows drivers to operate a cellphone using natural voice commands. This one feature makes communicating from your car both safer and more convenient — not a bad differentiator.

     The Chrysler system is only the beginning. The same push for product differentiation that engendered this product is driving other automakers to combine cellular technology, Internet access, GPS, and dynamic navigation into their own unique in-car systems. In fact, it’s estimated that over 20 million telematics-enabled cars and light trucks will be on the road in the United States by 2006

     This convergence of technologies could change driving dramatically. Lost your car key? Just dial a number on your cellphone, enter a password, and, presto, your door lock opens. Accident? An onboard computer could immediately dial 911 and provide the dispatcher with your exact GPS coordinates. Engine trouble? The same computer could automatically locate the nearest service center and, if you’d like, book a service appointment (after it has checked the scheduler on your PDA, of course). Multiple drivers in your family? Your virtual dashboard could change “skins” and reconfigure itself to each person’s preferences.

     All these features mean one thing: the software deployed in cars is going to get very complex. More sophisticated, in fact, that many of the applications on your desktop PC. Problem is, the software will also have to be a lot more reliable. Think about it: What do you do when your desktop OS crashes? You might curse a blue streak, but you’ll probably still buy the next version of the OS. But if your dashboard crashes? I don’t know about you, but my brand loyalty would take a dive. That’s a huge issue in the auto industry, where it takes an average of 18 years to win a customer back.

     Of course, automakers will be extremely careful about software testing; safety and regulatory issues give them no choice. Unfortunately, once software gets complex enough, no amount of testing can eliminate every bug — a problem when the software may be deployed in thousands of vehicles. More to the point, a car offers a relatively hostile environment. Desktop PCs are rarely exposed to excessive radio frequency or electromagnetic interference, but, within the car, stray interference near powerlines or transformers can affect hardware to the point that a software driver will fail.

     Automakers must do two things: a) Assume such problems may occur; and b) design their systems to recover quickly and automatically — without affecting the car’s occupants in any way. A tall order! In effect, they need to deploy high availability (HA) systems. By this, I don’t mean conventional HA designs, which typically recover from software failures by using redundant backup systems. That isn’t an option in the car market, where the cost of every bolt counts. So, rather than use redundant hardware, HA for automobiles has to implemented where most problems can occur in the first place: the software.

     What does this mean? Virtually any software process must be able to fail without affecting services provided by other processes. Moreover, the system should be able to restart any process automatically. For example, if a media player faults, the system would restart it instantly, without the driver even knowing there was a problem. Mind you, this fault-tolerance can’t apply only to applications. It has go deeper, right down to the device drivers and protocol stacks at the heart of any telematics system.

     Can automakers really do this? Definitely, provided they use the right operating system (OS) technology. They need to look closely at the OS they choose and ensure that it can provide memory protection not just for applications (the desktop approach), but for every software driver, file system, and protocol. The OS must also offer a high availability framework that can automate software recovery, without the need for a reboot. Otherwise, the phrase “car crash” may take on a whole new meaning.

     It remains to be seen just how much consumers will embrace this brave new era of talking, thinking cars. But one thing is certain. Without high availability OS technology, it won’t get past the starting line.

And there you have it. This article was published by ZDnet, Wireless Design, and one or two other publications, if I remember correctly.

By the way, the references to brands X, Y, and Z were based on actual television commercials. Can you identify any of them? I think I still recognize X and Y, but Z totally eludes me.



eric said...

Hi, there are some new interesting events for trains and bus. In Germany, Deutch Bahn has a projetc to design an open telematic plate-form. In France, e-nove project has been launched for 2 years now and is already used by 4 transport organisations. It 's a telematic solution, open and you can design your own application software. For sure, the volume and the market are not the same but it could be interresting to have a look on this project.
For more information you can get details on www.e-nove.org


Paul N. Leroux said...

Thanks for sharing that, Eric. I'll take a look!

- Paul

Satish said...

Hi Paul,

While most of your forecasts still hold good (will continue to... for a few more years) we are seeing a huge leap in technical convergence. From my discussions - In an era of tablets and hi-end mobiles and droids, will there actually be a need/place for intelligence in the car? Isn't this dual intelligence a redundancy. An intelligent phone can provide navi, cloud access, personalization and the list goes on... An intelligent car should use this available intelligence. Wouldn't minimizing software also in automotive technology means minimizing risk. If this is going to happen then a shift to open sourcing is also on the brink ;-). My take, forecast is about to change :-)


Paul N. Leroux said...

Indeed, cars are taking greater advantage of mobile devices and services -- witness the QNX-based BMW ConnectedDrive and Toyota Entune systems. However, mobile devices on their own aren't designed to deliver a safe and appropriate driving experience. Car makers see a lot of opportunity in enabling consumers to use their devices while driving safely. Which means software isn't going to disappear from the dashboard any time soon.