I recently visited Silicon Valley for the Telecom Council’s Mobile Forum on the Connected Car. The event was fascinating, but it was the day following the event, which included six appointments, that was in many ways more revealing of the current state of automotive telematics and navigation.
The Telecom Council event took place at the headquarter’s of Marvell Semiconductors and included representatives of wireless carriers from around the world, car maker research labs, venture capital types, semiconductor and software providers and start-up companies.
Speakers at the event discussed topics ranging from the proliferation of M2M-type vehicle connectivity and the M&A activity in that arena to electric vehicles and car sharing and the integration of smartphones with cars and the role of mobile applications. In fact, the participation of Nokia and Pioneer but the focus squarely on different strategies for accessing smartphone functionality in the car.
MirrorLink was highlighted in presentations and on-site in-vehicle demonstrations by Nokia representatives. Pioneer Electronics showed off its NTT Docomo DriveNet aftermarket smartphone-based telematics system, its AppRadio and Aha Radio and its head-up display technology with an augmented reality navigation enhancement.
The MirrorLink proposition, a product of the Car Connectivity Consortium, is intended to enable a range of smartphone-based application functionality into center stack head units. Similarly, both the Pioneer AppRadio and Aha Radio take different paths to smartphone app and content deployment clearly sharing the same objective with MirrorLink.
I hitched a ride back to my hotel with an event participant who happened to be using a smartphone-based navigation application to navigate to my hotel. Shortly before arriving at my hotel the application warned of a traffic incident ahead. It was at this point that I realized that the navigation application my benefactor was using was Waze.
The implications of using Waze at that moment were significant. Waze is currently in the midst of a test in the Silicon Valley area using traffic incident information from Triangle Software’s Beatthetraffic service.
Of course Waze also uses crowd-sourced traffic inputs and had, until recently, been using incident data from Clear Channel’s Total Traffic Network. Incident data has always been a challenge for Waze in spite of boasting 12 million global users – or “wazers,” as the company is fond of describing its customers.
The 12 million users are concentrated geographically in places such as Israel, New York and, fortuitously, California generally and Silicon Valley in particular. So, while my preferred free navigation application is Fullpower’s MotionX GPS, I was now reminded that Waze, too, offers free navigation.
The message was clear: free navigation on a smartphone is table stakes. It’s a given. More organizations – particularly carriers – will be seeking ways to offer navigation for free in order to enable location-based service and marketing models.
In other words, the marketing opportunities are in some ways worth more than the application. This may be why Sprint has indicated some willingness to part company with or renegotiate its relationship with TeleNav as reported in TeleNav’s latest earnings report. Everybody wants the elusive free lunch.
Speaking of a free lunch, attendees at the Telecom Council meeting were treated to in-vehicle demonstrations of MirrorLink smartphone connectivity by Nokia executives. MirrorLink provides for safe interaction with smartphone resources such as music, hands-free dialing and navigation including an enhanced user interface and a NHTSA-friendly policy management layer to govern application availability while driving.
For some observers, there is lingering resistance to the MirrorLink user interface and confusion regarding which phones support the technology. Of course, there is even more resistance to paying $20 for the app that enables the interface.
MirrorLink technology has riled some smartphone navigation suppliers that see the $20 app as a means to recover the difference in the cost of a smartphone map license vs. the cost of an embedded map license. Both Fullpower and TeleNav executives commented in phone calls that it will be easy for their organizations to switch to TeleAtlas maps, though neither organization has made that choice. (TeleNav uses both TeleAtlas and Nokia maps.)
Waze is building its own maps from crowd-sourced inputs, not unlike OpenStreetMaps. Both of these map databases have their shortcomings, but they also have millions of users.
On the third day of my Silicon Valley sojourn, the CEO of navigation software provider Fullpower noted the near futility of car makers seeking to compete with smartphone-based navigation given the cost differences and update cycles. In fact, he even questioned the wisdom of embedding modems in cars when on-board systems will simply never be up to the tasks enabled by rapidly refreshing mobile devices. (This perspective continues to gain traction in the smartphone community even as car makers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz have announced plans to upgrade to 3G on-board modules in the U.S. and elsewhere with LTE plans not far of.)
It was hard to argue with this position. And the difficulty of the argument was made clearer during a visit with Waze later in the day when executives there demonstrated a new breakthrough user interface.
One of the great challenges for Waze and its users is to enable a hands-free means for interacting with the application. This is especially difficult given that the most popular version of Waze is on the iPhone where Apple has not yet opened up the SIRI APIs to enable voice interaction for applications.
Waze has found a workaround by using the proximity sensor on the device allowing the user to wave their hand to activate the application and then, use a limited set of commands. The limited speech functionality set enables the user to set two pre-set destinations and create traffic alerts – an essential function to the crowd-sourced traffic information ethos of the application.
Perhaps most important about the Waze user interface enhancement is that it shows a touch-free way to interact with a smartphone in a car. It is intriguing to consider the possibility of voice commands to a smartphone controlling vehicle functions.
In the same way, Pioneer’s NTT Docomo smartphone/cradle-based DriveNet telematics system – available in Japan – provides a similar value proposition as will MirrorLink. All of these systems show the evolution of smartphone integration with the car enabling access to off-board resources and the enhanced user interface capabilities of the mobile device.
Consumers like free stuff and companies such as Waze, Fullpower and Beatthetraffic are providing them with free traffic and free navigation. Waze is building free maps as is OpenStreetMaps, but a qualitative delta remains between these resources and maps from Nokia and TeleAtlas.
Waze, Fullpower, Beatthetraffic and Pioneer are also making use of their user’s probe data. So mobile apps are now being used not only to build their own maps and report traffic incidents, they are also probes within their own traffic network.
Car makers such as Audi and BMW in Germany; Toyota, Nissan and Honda in Japan; and SAIC (with InkaNet) in China understand this principle and are making their cars probes within their own traffic data networks. North American car makers have yet to get on this bandwagon.
Of course crowd-sourcing of traffic information and the creation of community-based experiences are emerging in the connected vehicle space. And while Waze skeptics remain, the automotive industry may eventually come to realize the power of the crowd so solve complex problems – along with the power of turning an application into a game.
A recent column in the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley discussed the power of crowd-sourced science. His examples included computer gamers collaborating to redesign an enzyme, amateur astronomers searching as a group for galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial life and the thousands of people who record the migratory patterns of birds.
The same principles are at play with Waze and its new touch-less interface which potentially opens a door to more accurate and timely traffic reporting. Nokia may soon find a way to leverage its Trapster acquisition for crowd-sourcing traffic instead of just speed trap inputs. Inrix is gathering probe feed from multiple sources and gets some crowd inputs from Harman's Aha Radio application.
GM/OnStar, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi have all failed to enable crowd-sourced traffic data in the U.S. Ford is the closest to delivering this capability. Enabling crowd sourcing of traffic information is not only the next step in delivering more accurate and compelling traffic solutions it is also the first step toward building a community experience into the telematics experience. Just ask Waze how powerful that community experience can be. Better yet, ask Kleiner Perkins, which invested $30M in Waze, what it thinks of this communal traffic experience.
Pioneer/NTT Docomo DriveNet: