22 May 2014

By Fredric Paul


It would be the car industry’s dirty little secret, if it wasn’t so totally obvious. As anyone who drives a car already knows, today’s infotainment systems — and the limited numbers of apps they run — pretty much stink. Especially when compared to the huge and vibrant app ecosystems surrounding iOS, Android, and other mobile platforms.

“The sooner carmakers relinquish control of the dashboard, the better,” said Mark Platshon, a senior advisor to BMW in Silicon Valley and a partner in Birchmere Ventures. Automobile apps have historically been developed in-house, but that process takes far too long and stifles innovation.

“It’s not that third-party developers are smarter or faster,” added John Fremont, EVP at Chaotic Moon Studios, which is working with GM to evangelize the carmaker’s developer outreach program, “but there are so many of them with a diversity of experience, skills and perspectives.”

Bringing in outside developers won’t be easy. Despite a rash of individual carmaker initiatives — and new platforms like the Car Connectivity Consortium’s MirrorLink, Google’s Open Automotive Alliance, and Apple’s CarPlay — the auto apps market remains fractured. “We know we need to change the entire outsourcing R&D model, and people like us can help make it faster,” says Ben Lamm, CEO of Chaotic Moon.

Not surprisingly, just about every carmaker is angling to attract developers. Ford hosted OpenXC workshops around the country with TechShop, while Honda and Evernote co-sponsored a hackathon.

GM, meanwhile, is leveraging its OnStar service used by more than 6.5 million customers. The company is aggressively sharing tools and APIs to let outside developers create new apps via its portal. The platform is due to launch this summer when GM rolls out 4G LTE connections in most of its 2015 models. Like most automakers, “we participate in everything,” noted GM’s Global App Development Manager Junior Barrett. He added “we want to leverage the creativity and expertise of outside developers to help us bring even more content to our customers.”

Over the past year, GM has touted their developer program at more than a dozen events around the world, from standalone hackathons to TechCrunch Disrupt in New York and San Francisco. So what kind of apps are developers actually creating?

One of the most ingenious ideas came from a group of high school students, who built a learn-to-drive app that tracks student drivers’ practice times as they get ready to take the driver’s test. The app audibly walks students through complex maneuvers like parallel parking and three-point turns. Using GPS, it can even point out when a driver is speeding — which is way better than a parent yelling. “An app like this could only come from a younger person, not a carmaker’s development team,” said Fremont.

According to GM’s Barrett, more than 4,200 developers have already signed up for the nascent program. “We’re seeing a great deal of interest from developers wanting to work with our APIs and come up with the next big idea for in-vehicle apps.”