Detailed system and semiconductor demand analysis for in-vehicle infotainment, telematics and vehicle-device connectivity features.

November 3, 2014 09:49 rlanctot

Automotive News reports today that Volkswagen Group and Mercedes-Benz are calling on fellow automakers to establish separate platforms for data on vehicle use to avoid handing over sensitive customer information to Google.

The report ( - "Mercedes, VW to put brakes on Google's in-car data inroads") echoes similar sentiments expressed by VW CEO Martin Winterkorn at the CeBIT event earlier this year when he warned of the car becoming a “Datenkrake” or data octopus.

In his latest comments, Winterkorn says: "We seek connection to Google's data systems but we still want to be the masters of our own cars. Potential conflict arises around making data available."

What Volkswagen and Mercedes are concerned about is the inclination of rivals, such as General Motors, to share vehicle and customer data with Google. The reason for the concern is that Google is seeking to shake down the industry by charging steep licensing fees for use of its connectivity, content and application assets if auto makers won’t share data. The extortion boils down to: “Share your data with us and the licensing fee goes away.”

I’ve got news for the auto makers and Google: the data cat is out of the bag. Nearly every non-electric car in the world has a data port for emissions testing which is also used for diagnostics. EVs have no emissions, hence no data port. The availability of that data port, or OBDII, means anyone potentially has access to the vehicle data as long as they can tap into that port.

So-called right-to-repair laws in the U.S. require auto makers to allow access to that port and to the vehicle diagnostic codes. Similar laws exist or are being pursued elsewhere in the world.

But access to vehicle data is getting more interesting with the proliferation of wireless connections to cars via embedded modems (OnStar, BMW Assist, Mercedes mbrace, etc.) or connected smartphones (Ford SYNC, Toyota Entune, etc.). And, most recently, the emergence of aftermarket OBDII devices has introduced the prospect of direct consumer and third-party access to vehicle data.

Access to or availability of data does not necessarily connote ownership. GM OnStar executives often say at industry events: “Our customers own their data.” But as I have said and written many times, owning the data and having access to the data are two different things.

I had my BMW serviced this week. Every time I visit my dealer the technician places my keyfob into a reader that downloads data from the vehicle. In the past I have asked to see the output from this device, which translates to five pages of information. I have also previously obtained a copy of the document.

When I requested a copy of the document at the end of my service visit this week the technician said he could not provide it as it was confidential company information. I told the technician that the vehicle was mine and, therefore, the data was mine and that I’d like a copy of the printout after which ensued the classic standoff. He could show me the report but he could not give me the report.

So, here is where we stand. The car companies have substantial amounts of information about their cars and their customers and about how their customers use their cars. The car companies share some of that information with consumers and some of that information with the government. But they really don’t want to share any data with any entity if they can possibly avoid it.

VW’s Winterkorn complained of the car becoming a “datenkrake” as part of an effort to suggest that VW was going to protect the consumer’s information against evil and intrusive government representatives or marketers. The reality is that VW and every other car company is already sharing customer and vehicle information with marketing partners of their choosing and are only pretending to hide behind a shield of customer privacy to protect their own interests.

It is time for the car makers to come clean. Vehicle data, which rightly belongs to the consumer, should be made available to the consumer via Web portals and/or smartphone applications.

If Zubie and Audiovox and and Automatic and CarMD and Automile and Carvoyant and Helpten and Eliocity and High Mobility and Metromile and Baseline Telematics and State Farm and Verizon can tap into my vehicle data port and deliver diagnostic insights to a Web portal, then car makers ought to do the same directly. In fact, both Mercedes and VW offer dealer-installed OBDII devices in Europe for the very purpose.

The liberation of vehicle data will actually be empowering for dealers, consumers and OEMs. VW and Mercedes are right to be concerned about Google gaining access to their data because Google has more experience with taking advantage of access to customer information.

Google turns ownership of customer information into ownership of the customer. Google’s Chinese doppleganger, Alibaba, understands this as well. Both see the massive monetary rewards to be had from guiding vehicle ownership, purchasing and servicing decisions. Car companies are too twisted in knots over their conflicted dealer relationships to capitalize on their inside track in the customer relationship.

The first step in fixing things will be greater transparency. Car makers need to share more vehicle data with their customers (and NOT just monthly vehicle health reports!). Consumers want to see drive-by-drive data. Consumers want real-time notifications of problems. And consumers want the information delivered in an easy-to-access manner.

Next time I visit my BMW dealer I am going to be asking for my vehicle data printout. But maybe BMW will take the hint and make that information available online directly so I don’t have to harass my dealer. How about it, BMW? After all, it’s my data too.

October 31, 2014 08:02 rlanctot

Experian Automotive put out a news item in time for Halloween noting the emergence of a class of cars it has dubbed “zombies” for the fact that some 14.7M of these vehicles on U.S. roads sport the name plates of defunct brands. According to the Experian report, 32.1% of zombie cars are Pontiacs, with three of the top five “dead” models on the road.

(Forbes report: - Driving The Undead: Millions Of Zombie Cars And Trucks On U.S. Roads)

It is an interesting bit of analysis and it reminds us of GM’s decision to let its Hummer and Saturn brands die rather than see them fall into the hands of potential competitors. Saturn is the second most numerous zombie brand, according to Experian, at 16.1% of the total. Other brands among the “walking dead” are Mercury, Suzuki, Saab, and Isuzu.

Strategy Analytics is more concerned about zombie cars of a different sort. A growing number of cars from living brands are driving the highways of the world with inactive modems.

GM is the clear leader in cars on the road with inactive modems, but Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Hyundai and a growing roster of cars from other makes are plying highways globally with inert telecom modules.

In fact, the European Commission is facilitating this march of the “driving dead” making way for the acceptance of a so-called “dormant SIM” to fulfill the impending eCall mandate. The dormant SIM will only activate in the event of a crash, but will otherwise lie silently inactive inside the vehicle.

Car makers are increasingly taking steps to revivify these undead devices. GM has made various offers in the past in partnership with companies such as State Farm to bring inert modules back to life with attractive service discounts. OnStar long ago perfected the art of remotely activating its devices for diagnostic purposes – a capability that might yet serve the company during the ongoing recall crisis.

GM’s decision last year to begin offering five years of free remote door unlock and remote start service with new OnStar activations was the first step in ensuring live connections to more GM cars and customers. (Dealers are already receiving large volumes of service leads as a result of this move.) That decision followed BMW’s decision earlier the same year to offer 10 years of free vehicle connectivity.

Of course, sometimes changes in wireless networks inadvertently unplug cars from those valuable connections.  OnStar and half a dozen OEM partners lost vehicle connections in the wireless network switchover from analog to digital.  AT&T's anticipated shutdown of its 2G network by the end of 2016 may have a similar impact.  The mere thought of cars with embedded 2G modems losing their connections may be scary, but alternative points of connection exist.

Both GM and BMW recognize the wasted  opportunity at stake in leaving zombie cars on the road. After all, what’s the point of putting a telecom device in a car if it’s not activated?

The prospect of hundreds of millions of wasted development dollars and lost aftersales revenue has probably frightened these OEMs into wising up and turning on those connections. Here’s hoping the rest of the new arrivals in the telematics market – Honda, Volvo and Volkswagen, etc. – take note and choose not to add to the population of telematics zombies. Happy Halloween.


October 29, 2014 09:03 rlanctot

Every industry needs a report card and every research organization wants to be that performance reference. The automotive industry has many report cards – with J.D. Power being the most notable. But the most onerous one is supplied by Consumer Reports.

I used to think that automotive engineers that had to work on steering or braking systems or interiors or powertrains had it tough. I used to think that those jobs must be incredibly boring compared to working on infotainment and connectivity systems.

And then Consumer Reports’ Annual Automotive Reliability Study comes out and I understand why those engineers are so happy. (Latest CR Report: - Consumer Reports 2014 Annual Auto Reliability Survey Finds Infotainment Systems are a Growing First-Year Reliability Plague) They don’t have to put up with CR raining on their parade every year. More importantly, they don’t have to put up with a study that punishes innovation or newness of any kind.

Consumer Reports represents the tyranny of mediocrity. The car companies that are awarded top honors in the CR studies traditionally have been the most conservative participants in the car connectivity space and, so, not surprisingly, Toyota and Lexus win top honors yet again.

Smartphone connectivity systems have become the bugbear of the automotive industry. These systems attempt to transcend the mysteries of mobile operating systems, Bluetooth compatibility and multiple APIs to render applications into in-dash displays. It’s a high-wire act at best that challenges everyone from product managers, to dealers to consumers.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the companies taking the greatest risks in the space attract the greatest number of customer complaints which translate to low reliability ratings.

With all due respect to Nuance and its Tweddle Connect team that is supplying Toyota EnTune and Lexus EnForm, this offering is more than five years old and was limited in scope from its introduction in the market. That limited-scope strategy was well suited to Toyota’s clientele which has shown little interest in flashy technology. The Toyota customer wants a reliable and affordable vehicle above all. (Did I say boring? Hey, if boring sells, who cares?)

The CR study also punishes the new. GM’s new pickup line was dinged essentially as a result of a few launch jitters. Infiniti’s new In Touch system was singled out negatively as well.

But I always hate (love) to see the CR report when it arrives, because it invariably dings any car company that has taken any chances with its approach to infotainment. For the past two years it is Ford that has taken most of the hard knocks for SYNC and MyFord Touch.

Yet, it took bold risk taking at Ford to open the door to new thinking around smartphone integration. Without Ford there would be no Toyota EnTune or Chevrolet MyLink or all the rest of the smartphone connectivity solutions including Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto.

I understand that this is what CR does. This is why we pay the subscription. This is why we read the headlines and click through to the evaluations.

But it is the same message every time. If a car company is taking risks and has a few unexpected glitches it is dinged downward on the list. If the car company has left its current product line in place and made few changes, there’s a good chance it will move higher on the list due to fewer complaints.

We love our report cards, so we will look forward to the next CR evaluation. But we will take those grades with a grain of salt. For CR rewards mediocrity and simplicity at the expense of risk taking and innovation.

October 24, 2014 23:01 rlanctot

I’ve just come from the site of the 15th Western China International Fair in Chengdu and the booth of the Telematics Industry Application Alliance (TIAA) which featured more than a half dozen demonstrations of every imaginable configuration of eCall. ECall is what Europe has dubbed the automatic crash notification (ACN) function made famous by GM's OnStar.

There were embedded systems on display from Huawei and an aftermarket cigarette lighter plug in (not unlike the Splitsecnd product in the U.S.). There were head units from HSAE for passenger cars and commercial vehicles with ACN and systems with integrated smartphones. There was even an Ivoka OBDII plug-in from Pateo.

In the U.S., eCall, or ACN, is considered old hat. Most executives concerned with saving lives associated with car accidents have shifted their focus from surviving accidents (with airbags and seatbelts) to avoiding them altogether, with sensor-based safety systems. While TIAA in China is weighing the prospect of a recommended standard or mandate for eCall, the U.S. has never seriously considered the idea.

There is good reason for China’s auto industry to be interested in eCall. Accidents on Chinese highways are responsible for upwards of 100,000 fatalities annually – about three times the number killed every year in the U.S. (To put the figures into perspective, 300 people are dying every day on roads in China vs. 100/day in the U.S.)

China and India top the list of countries with the most highway fatalities, followed by Brazil and the U.S. Europe, which sees less than half the highway fatality rate of the U.S., on average, has been attempting to institute a mandatory eCall function for about a decade. In fact, Europe was recently joined by Russia which is pushing its own eCall-like solution.

Having just come from Brazil, where BMW and Volvo are offering ACN functionality, I can honestly say that ACN is seeing something of a revival. A new study from Strategy Analytics (Consumer Interest in Telematics Services - shows consumer interest in ACN as a telematics service at a low ebb in the U.S. and Europe, but gaining traction in China.

New telematics systems in the U.S., such as those offered by Audi and Tesla, have shown a willingness among car makers to not even bother with ACN. But in China, the largest and fastest growing auto market in the world, a wide range of suppliers from wireless carriers to head unit makers, are working on enhancements such as crash type and severity algorithms of the type developed by BMW and GM more than five years ago.

The only region contemplating an eCall mandate is Europe where highway fatalities are already at the lowest levels in the world. The added twist to the eCall debate is the United Nations’ interest in a global eCall mandate - a topic that will be considered at the upcoming Telematics Update event in Munich (Nov. 10-11 - Hotel Dolce, Munich - With annual global highway fatalities expected to top 2M in just a few years, cars are becoming a leading killer on the scale of a major worldwide health crisis.

Maybe it’s time to set aside all the app development and smartphone integration and get back to the basics of saving and preserving lives while cruising along the world’s highways. We boldly advance the cause of collision avoidance before we have conquered the process of collision survival.

Is it cheaper to make crashes survivable or to avoid them altogether? Of course, we want to do both.

The World Health Organization predicts that road traffic injuries will go from the current ninth position in the cause-of-death rankings to fifth place by 2030, causing 2.4M annual deaths (as well as between 20M and 50M injuries), largely of young people and at great economic cost – as noted in “The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death.”

It’s time to think again before crossing ACN off the list of telematics services when designing connected systems. The next life saved by an eCall may be your own.

October 21, 2014 22:14 rlanctot

Could wireless carriers take over the broadcast of radio content removing this vital source of content and information delivery from the free airways? This concept was implanted into my brain as the result of a presentation given by a Swedish broadcaster who was intending to make the point that no such thing could or would happen.

The strenuous effort by this broadcaster, Teracom, to make the point that wireless carriers could and would never in a million years take on the task of broadcasting radio content actually introduced a concept that I had never even considered before. And rather than vanquishing this idea, it planted the seed (cue: Simon & Garfunkel). Each point that was intended to highlight its impossibility actually pointed to its potential practicality.

Sweden, like most radio broadcast markets today, is in the throes of a transition to digital radio. In Sweden, the target date is 2022 and the format is DAB+. The switchover to digital is intended to enable broadcasters to deliver a greater variety of higher quality content at lower cost. The use of digital broadcast technology even has green credentials.

Presenting at an Australian radio industry event was relevant because each and every country has its own regulatory challenges and conflicts in the digital radio transition. The Teracom report, which is freely available from Teracom, highlights Sweden’s unique issues, but the concept of wireless carriage of radio broadcasts has global interest.

Teracom’s study was conducted by A-focus. The A-focus study was intended to respond to the following proposition described in the report’s introduction: “One of the major criticism’s is that ‘there is no need for terrestrial radio’ since ‘the cellular networks will handle the small traffic generated from radio listening.’”

As you might imagine, such a premise amounts to “fighting words” in the broadcast industry. The statement is shocking on two counts – first, that there is “no need” for terrestrial radio; and, second, that the cellular networks can handle the “small traffic.”

The report provides a detailed and perhaps predictable assessment of the volume of data traffic required to take on existing radio broadcasts in Sweden. The report estimates the cost of such a switchover and concludes, perhaps correctly, that it is impossible or, at least, improbable.

But the report itself reminds the reader of Shakespeare’s “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” As Wikipedia states: “It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere or defensive.”

The Teracom presentation of the A-focus report made all the appropriate points regarding cost, wireless network coverage and availability, and the penetration of wireless phone ownership. All of these metrics pointed to the inappropriateness of wireless carriage for radio broadcast content delivery.

But the average listener to such a report is not likely to ever have considered comprehensive wireless carriage for radio signals. So the report actually gets the listener thinking about this possibility for the first time.

The presentation takes place in the midst of massive disruption in the radio industry. Not only is radio wrestling with the cost, equipment and consumer behavior implications of a switch to digital broadcasting, it is also feeling the pressure from listeners taking advantage of a much wider range of IP-based audio sources.

Streaming audio sources have replaced pre-recorded content on mobile devices as the greatest and growing alternative (threat?) to over-the-air listening to broadcast commercial radio. In fact, the introduction of LTE technology around the world has introduced wireless broadcast as an option, which is the likely source of the Teracom/A-focus straw-man of carriers taking over radio broadcast.

But yet a third influence is at play, which is the global tug of war over spectrum. Government regulators and lobbyists are tussling over the reconfiguration of wireless networks to achieve strategic government objectives and/or to serve commercial interests. In the midst of these deliberations some foresee free over the air television and radio at risk.

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine free TV going away completely in favor of satellite and/ cable delivery, with the television spectrum auctioned off to wireless carriers or to enable wider access to the Internet. (I can’t remember the last time I obtained my television content for free.) Could radio end up along a similar path?

This is an important question for the automotive industry which is constantly fielding questions as to when radios will disappear from dashboards. It is also one of the major motivators behind Sprint and Emmis Communications’ efforts to force the wireless industry to integrate FM chips in mobile phones.

Sprint and Emmis have now been joined in their lobbying efforts by iHeartRadio, iBiquity and the BBC. The concept, called NextRadio by Sprint and Emmis, will require the integration of FM chips in mobile phones to allow them to receive free over-the-air broadcast content. The technology also enables novel content integration via an app.

Free over-the-air TV is facing a phase-out in some international markets, though no such plan is proposed in the U.S. And I know of no immediate plan to shift radio broadcasts entirely to wireless carriage. The shift from analog to digital for radio will be trauma enough.

But streaming audio content has become a lifeline for some carriers in some markets. T-Mobile in the U.S. and, now, Vodafone in Australia have turned to free, unlimited streaming content via particular apps as the means to shore up their subscriber numbers.

Combine the proliferation of streaming content via mobile phones with the increasing adoption of smartphone integration systems in cars and you have a recipe for a de facto shift of audio listening from broadcast radio to the wireless network. So, contrary to what Teracom and A-focus may suggest, consumers are voting with their handsets enabled by the wireless carriers and the car companies.

I won’t get into the importance and value of maintaining an independent and free over-the-air broadcast radio component for any national system. The importance of radio for communicating emergency information or during emergencies is well known. And radio, of course, delivers an extraordinary contextual content experience … for free!

But Teracom has quite provocatively and accidentally raised the specter of radio content broadcast entirely via the wireless networks. If you still have any doubts as to the existing trend moving in this direction simply consider the iHeartRadio app, Omny, TuneIn Radio, Aha, v-tuner, Rivet Radio, and the thousands of individual radio station apps.

Teracom and A-focus may have determined that it makes no sense for wireless carriers to take on the entirety of existing radio transmissions – but it is already happening.

The A-focus original report can be ordered free of charge through Lotta Darlin, Teracom,

October 14, 2014 01:28 rlanctot

Google is quietly calling the tune in automotive technology development. I see it every day.

Two companies have found success recently in bringing advanced vehicle technologies to the market on two very different trajectories. One, Quanergy, recently made public its relationship with Daimler as part of a plan to bring advanced safety technology to the market. The other, Making Virtual Solid (MVS), has acknowledged its relationship with Toyota for an advanced head-up display.

Quanergy has gone from concept to OEM deal within a year of obtaining its first funding. MVS has been banging away at its solution for nearly a decade laboring in the shadows while courting Tier 1s and OEMs seemingly to no avail.

The difference between the path to market for these two companies is Google. Google cares about advanced driver assist technologies. It does not appear to care about head-up displays.

I still remember meeting MVS company president, at the time, Myra Schulman, at an industry event many years ago and being perplexed and intrigued by the company’s name. I have since gotten to know Juliana Clegg who has been carrying the flag for the past five years or so.

The fact that Quanergy found a more rapid path to the market reflects the growing influence of Google. Quanergy’s Lidar-based system is intended to replace the $70,000 Velodyne unit made famous by the rig on top of the Google self-driving car.

Quanergy is driving down the size and cost of that system to about the size of a hockey puck and the cost of an iPad. In contrast, MVS has been slogging away at the significantly less sexy head-up display category but with a no less radical technological leap in packaging, cost and performance.

The MVS solution creates what is called a volumetric, 3D head-up display that will enable safer communication of navigational cues and safety alerts in the context of the visual field ahead of the vehicle. The cost and packaging of the MVS system could help bring the technology to vehicles outside of the upper reaches of the luxury segment to which they have been until-now confined.


But without any interest from Google in head-up displays, car makers regard the category with something less than enthusiasm, though companies such as Continental have continued to steadily advance HUD technology with multiple OEM partners. The fact that Toyota is the first to adopt the MVS solution is a head turner and should open some eyes.

Multiple use cases are illustrated in a Car and Driver report ( - Toyota Developing Radical Head-up Display for Production) including the description of how the display will alert drivers to hazardous driving circumstances. In fact, the Toyota adoption of the MVS technology may in itself change the perception of the technology and restore interest in non-Google initiatives.

Still, you can sense the venture capitalists weighing the merits of investing in emerging automotive technology suppliers against Google’s commitment to or interest in their technology. It is close to amazing that MVS has made it to market at all. When the car companies and their suppliers keep you waiting, it is tempting to lose heart even as you are losing money.  (MVS executives are quick to point out the fact that their efforts have been funded by multiple OEMs throughout the development cycle.)  It looks as if MVS’s patience has finally been rewarded. Maybe Google will take note.

October 11, 2014 10:07 rlanctot

Interview after interview, press briefing after press briefing, quote after quote, Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, neglects to mention the single asset at GM that held the greatest interest of potential investors or acquirers in the darkest days of GM’s bankruptcy: OnStar. Speaking years ago with Steven Rattner, so-called Car Czar and overseer of the bankruptcy, (and author of “Overhaul”) he told me the single asset that stimulated almost daily phone calls from interested parties during the bankruptcy was OnStar.

All that value, but not a peep from Barra. It is time for Ms. Barra to speak up and speak out about this core asset, OnStar, that is going to give GM an edge in the emerging Internet of Things economy.

OnStar is also the answer to what ails GM today.

To that end, the time has arrived for real, credible transformation at GM. It is time for GM to offer lifetime vehicle connectivity included in the cost of its cars.

In light of the horrific ignition switch recall (potentially having contributed to as many as 23 fatalities), it’s time for GM to take OnStar back into the limelight with a leadership stance in telematics. Lifetime connectivity for GM cars is the game changer the company needs.

Only an offer like lifetime connectivity will truly convince consumers that GM is serious about backing its quality, reliability and safety claims. Only lifetime connectivity will deliver the kind of signal to consumers that GM “gets it” – that it’s time for business NOT as usual. It’s time for change.

Based on subscribers alone, GM’s OnStar telematics service remains the industry leader. It is expanding that leadership position daily with the addition of geographic coverage in China and Mexico with more countries to come.

What GM has failed to do is to reposition OnStar in a post-smartphone era. What is required is a redefinition of the connected car value proposition including the definition of connected safety.

GM is making some long-term bets on vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity as well as on the self-driving precursor technology “Super-Cruise.” But the recall debacle has called painful attention to the fact that GM, of all car companies, is losing touch with its customers.

More than a million cars remain on the road with faulty switches. The ignition switch recall, along with so many others effecting millions of GM cars on the road, is illustrating the desperate need to switch gears.

It is time for GM to offer lifetime connectivity to OnStar customers. Yet even such a bold offer will only show GM playing catch up. Qoros and BYD in China already offer lifetime wireless connectivity and, in the U.S., Tesla appears so far to be committed to the same value proposition while BMW offers 10 years of "free" wireless service (included in the cost of the car).

Lifetime connectivity will ensure that GM:

  • Can find the cars (and their owners) that urgently require recall repairs
  • Can communicate service bulletins or the need for software updates (or directly deliver those software updates)
  • Schedule dealer visits in real-time to remediate any troubles

Note, that the value of lifetime connectivity is primarily directed at GM. It is valuable to GM to be connected to its customers. Customers benefit indirectly. But I am sure GM can cook up some revenue opportunities if all of its cars are connected all the time.

How about it GM? Are you ready for real change?

October 9, 2014 06:57 rlanctot

The following commentary was prepared by Stefan Engels, a German attorney and automotive industry consultant with previous senior executive experience at dbh logistics IT AG, Intermap Technologies, PTV AG, Motorola Solutions, Deutsche Telekom and DaimlerChrysler Services. (I edited Stefan's commentary and chose the picture - at left.):

Hardly a day passes when one cannot find a high profile commentary or news bulletin about autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. Next to the usual suspects in the automotive industry working on such technologies, there is a remarkable number of new players trying to penetrate this field. These newcomers obviously see market and technical opportunities within autonomous driving, but the law may be a bigger barrier than technology.

There are several unresolved legal questions, especially here in Germany and in Europe overall, which leave announcements like “XYZ cars/trucks will drive autonomously by 2020” sounding a little hollow. I am not opposed to the vision of self-driving cars, but the legal issues must be resolved.

Major recent change of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic in 2014

A first step towards realizing this vision was made back on April 17 this year, when the good old international treaty called “Vienna Convention on Road Traffic” saw dramatic change in its Article 8 para. 1. Pushed mainly by representatives from Germany, Italy and France, the U.N. Working Party on Road Traffic Safety agreed to let drivers take their hands off the wheel of self-driving cars, as long as the system "can be overridden or switched off by the driver." In a nutshell: a driver must be present and able to take over the wheel at any time.

Years before, it had been both mandatory as well as common sense of the 1968 Convention on Road Traffic, that: "Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals." – which pushed the sophisticated dream of “without a driver having to touch the steering wheel” in Germany far out - as the German driving license regulations (FeV) refers to it.

The legal framework ruling operation & permitting of vehicles in Germany

There are a few regulations, mainly stipulated in the national German Road Vehicle (Registration) Regulations (StVG, StVZO and StVO), which still require active measures by any vehicle driver, regardless if the car is fully automated or not. So nearby scenarios in the big picture with a vehicle commuting driverless, e.g. to a parking space or as a pick-up service, require a change of these regulations, in order to conform to these laws.

For example, according to Sect. 31b StVZO, each vehicle driver has to hand out on request e.g. the breakdown triangle, the reflective vest or the first-aid kit. It is the literal sense that a driverless car cannot “hand out” anything at all. On the other hand, violators can be prosecuted with a fine of up to 2,000 €, according to Sect. 69a, para. 5, No. 4b in conjunction with Sect. 24 StVG.

A similar problem occurs when a vehicle breaks down: according to Sect. 15 StVO, the vehicle driver has then to arrange a breakdown triangle to warn oncoming traffic from behind, roughly in a total distance of 320ft. Minor offences can be punished here with a fine, but in the worst case, this can be sentenced as a criminal offence with prison up to 5 years (Sect. 315c, para. 1, No. 2g StGB [German Criminal Code]). Finally, absconding after a traffic accident (Sect. 142 StGB) showcases, that our legal system – not only in Germany – also takes a physical vehicle driver for granted!

Apart from that, there are numerous mainly technical regulations in the national German Road Vehicle Registration Regulation (StVZO), effecting the remaining general operating license of a vehicle, such as the grant of a view field, needed resolving power of camera systems, brake and steering mechanism – see e.g. Sect. 19 StVZO.

One may argue now, if you take Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning, a good automatic gearbox, multiple cameras and just add some (physical) sensors, you have an autonomous car that is quantifiably better than the average driver. Even though this may be the case, it is in my view the overall combined system that needs to perform smoothly and operate 100% error-free.

A well-known German OEM, for example, has driven hundreds of miles with its prototype. At a pedestrian crossing somewhere downtown, a polite old lady wanted to give way to this car. While the system detected an obstacle, identified as a pedestrian at the side of the road, the car stopped, to give way to the lady. No rule in the system had been programmed for “politeness,” and to me this is one of the more “innocent” errors, that can occur.

Liability issues

Next to a fault-based liability, there also exists liability regardless of fault in our national German Road Vehicle Regulations. According to Sect. 7 StVG, the keeper of a car is always held liable for any harm, caused by his vehicle: for injury to persons up to 5M€ max., for property damage up to 1M€ max., see Sect. 12 para. 1 No.1 and 2 StVG.

This is based on the idea, that each keeper of the car is responsible for the potentially increased risk, emanating from operating his or her vehicle. Therefore, each keeper of the car is obligated in Germany, to effect an insurance (see Sect. 1 PflVG) for (1) himself; (2) [a potentially non-identical] owner of the car as well as (3) the driver. In this context, questions will definitely arise regarding insurance protection, if the car is driverless, as to what exactly can and will be covered.

Next to this – as you have probably expected – also the producer can be held liable, if due to a product defect a person is injured or property damaged, see Sect. 1 para. 1 ProdHaftG. Again, this liability is regardless of an actual fault. In Germany, we differentiate three main “fault” case groups: (1) construction; (2) production and (3) instruction. Especially the latter one – instruction faults – is well-known, when it comes to more complex driver assistance systems and is the main reason why acoustical and/or visual warning signals have to be implemented here – next to the telephone-book-thick instruction manuals just for ADAS applications.

Outlook for Germany & the EU

Apart from Germany's Road Vehicle Regulations and product liabilities, data privacy protection will be one key area, that also needs to be covered. Hackers taking command of a car is not the sole concern. Which privacy law applies, if a German headquartered OEM, manufacturing a vehicle in a plant based in the US, sells it to a customer, who drives it then in Japan?

But with roughly 80% of all fatalities derived from human failure, I think we should seize this golden opportunity now and position technical demands for camera systems as a higher priority than any existing human reference values in our laws, in order to improve the whole, intrinsic system and lift it up to the next level.

Given the fact that some of the above mentioned laws are originally EU-directives, which have been implemented by all EU member states, it is not solely a German challenge to overcome.

In Conclusion

The German car lobby with support elsewhere in the EU was able to alter the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic to allow hands to be removed from the wheel. Mercedes was clearly mindful of the old rules when it launched the latest S Class requiring the driver’s hands to be on the wheel. (Of course, some clever drivers have found a workaround with a can tied to the steering wheel:

Hopefully progress in the future will not depend on workarounds. With further lobbying the Gordian Knot of legal limitations will be overcome enabling a driverless future to unfold. But it may be difficult for Germans, in particular, to accept that computers drive better than Germans.

September 23, 2014 14:38 rlanctot

With its $1B acquisition of Waze last year Google served notice that it understood the importance of crowd-sourced data to navigation and the connected car market.  The problem is that Google may not have realized how popular Waze really was or how that popularity might impact the automotive industry and Google’s own connected car plans.

I am visiting Brazil this week and the impact of Waze is being felt throughout the connected car market.  Car makers struggle to sell car radios, let along navigation systems or connected safety.  Consumers will have none of it when they can simply use Waze navigation, for free, on their smartphones.

In fact, public authorities in Rio de Janeiro used Waze (and Moovit) data to help manage traffic and transit activity during the World Cup, according to a report in Forbes:

A Yahoo report dating to June of last year estimates Waze users at 50M worldwide and its prevalence and continued penetration is impossible to ignore.  Regardless of the accuracy or timeliness of its probe-based traffic information, Waze has become the primary go-to source for traffic information throughout the developed and developing world.

But Waze’s success is smothering invention.  The leaders in traffic information – TomTom, HERE and INRIX – are focused on refining predictive models and routing engines.  Along with those efforts, these organizations are developing the means to report traffic for smaller and smaller road segments with greater degrees of accuracy and integrating state of the art journalistic or observational inputs.

Waze pretty much focuses on delivering timely probe data feeds via a customer-pleasing user interface and “gamefied” user experience.  If Waze offers any traffic predictions they are based on historical data, but Waze was not founded upon traffic prediction, it was founded upon real-time traffic reporting.

So, Waze is essentially delivering the anti-Wayne-Gretzky traffic reporting experience.  Rather than helping users understand where the puck is going or where the puck (traffic) will be when the driver gets there – Waze focuses on what the traffic is.

But this approach to traffic reporting is not unlike the weatherman looking out the window – or looking at historical weather reports.  We all know that that is not how forecasting is done.

I do want to note that Waze is also a powerful go to source for traffic cameras, or “fiscalização electronica” here in Brazil.  This is one way that crowdsourcing is delivering a powerful value proposition for drivers.

But there is a more insidious negative impact from Waze that is just as impossible to ignore as its global real-time traffic reporting success.  Waze is becoming the default choice for smartphone based navigation in emerging markets around the world.

The impact of this emerging and proliferating consumer preference is to suppress interest in embedded navigation systems, no matter how inexpensive they might be.  Waze has become that bugaboo of the navigation and traffic industry:  the good enough solution.

It takes too much time to explain to consumers why systems from HERE, TomTom and INRIX are superior.  Waze is free!  Is that bad?

Waze is bad.  It’s bad for embedded navigation.  It’s bad for integrated safety and location-enhanced powertrain systems.  It’s bad for Google.

Waze’s emergence in the developing world – as in Brazil – has contributed to consumer indifference toward embedded (in-dash) navigation.  This is unfortunate because adoption rates for embedded navigation outside the developing world are on the rise.

The reason for wider adoption of embedded navigation is the enhancement of fuel efficient driving and safety systems.   Cars being sold in North America and Europe are increasingly integrating map data with safety systems for contextual awareness and autonomous driving, and powertrains for enhanced fuel efficiency.

The ever-widening spread of Waze means embedded navigation is struggling to take hold.  This is especially worrisome in Brazil and China and India where enhanced situational awareness and safety systems are sorely missed as part of the effort to mitigate skyrocketing highway accident fatality rates.  (Could Waze users be responsible for killing people and trees?)

Even more unsettling for Google is the fact that Waze’s popularity is a barrier to the success of the Android Auto smartphone connection offering from Google arriving later this year.  Android Auto will be an expensive platform for integrating Android-based phones in cars.  While it will enable an embedded screen-based navigation experience, it will represent a prohibitively expensive alternative to the Waze user accustomed to using his unencumbered phone.

Even integrating Waze into the Android Auto solution will not reduce the cost of the system.

Waze is discouraging the adoption of embedded navigation which is impeding the integration of on-board map data with safety and powertrain systems.  Waze is also standing in the path of Android Auto.

All that being said, Google is driving the adoption of Waze by municipal authorities, as in the case of Rio de Janeiro, and broadcasters, with mixed success.  Here, too, Google is discovering the tragic truth of traffic data – no one wants to pay for it! 

That is a slight overstatement of the facts.  Consumers and car companies do not want to pay for traffic data, but municipal and government authorities are willing to pay and there is a long history of broadcast organizations paying for traffic information.

Government organizations do prefer accurate traffic data and predictive models, but there are some applications for which real-time info is sufficient.  Even broadcasters may be content with real-time traffic information.  But here, too, Waze’s good enough solution may undermine the delivery of more accurate and timely traffic solutions and travel time estimates   .

Has Waze become the crack of the traffic industry?  Or is Waze a gateway application to something more serious?  This remains to be seen.  For now, Waze is good enough to get the masses around.  And it’s proving increasingly difficult to get consumers to see past the Waze.  That sounds good for Google, but it is really bad.

September 17, 2014 15:17 rlanctot

There is a maxim in the publicity business that it doesn’t matter what anyone says about you as long as they spell your name right. In other words, all publicity is good publicity. There is good reason to believe that maxim when, for example, GM sets sales records in spite of record-setting recalls.

But there are times when you have to step in and set the record straight. General Motors, above all other car makers, knows this well. No other car maker attracts wanted and unwanted press attention like GM and with so much attention attracted there are inevitable moments of cluelessness on the part of the press, in spite of best intentions.

These moments of cluelessness are magnified by the introduction of technology. Last week it was GigaOM caught in the headlights with an inaccurate story about the alleged demise of Chevrolet’s MyLink smartphone connectivity system (along with, presumably, Buick’s IntelliLink and Cadillac’s CUE).

The GigaOM report appeared to be based on an interview with Mary Chan, who doesn’t give a lot of interviews. It was picked up by VentureBeat and others. Mary was no doubt hoping to clear the air and give GigaOM a small scale scoop regarding Apple CarPlay and Google Auto Link implementation. GigaOM took the small scale scoop and inflated it into a large scale fabrication.

Here is the GigaOM article:

Here is the GM clarification:

1.) GM is not getting rid of MyLink. MyLink is the name of Chevrolet’s infotainment system (Cadillac’s is CUE and Buick/GMC is IntelliLink). So, all the connected radio and infotainment features we offer within Chevrolet vehicles are part of the MyLink platform. When the day comes that we do implement Apple Car Play or Android Auto, those would be offerings within the MyLink platform too. Articles and/or headlines that state we are abandoning or disinvesting in MyLink are not accurate.

2.) While we are committed to working with Apple and Google to implement their respective phone projection systems, this won’t be customers’ only option for information and entertainment services within the vehicle. We see CarPlay and Android Auto is another option for customers to get the services they want within vehicles, but we will also continue to offer a variety of built-in infotainment features as well. GM is implementing a strategy of both built-in and brought-in connectivity in order to give customers their preferred method of accessing information.

3.) General Motors remains committed to bringing the AppShop (CUE Collection in Cadillacs) to market in the future as part of an overarching connectivity strategy. The decision to delay this feature beyond the 2015 model year was based on the company’s commitment to ensure all infotainment systems deliver the highest quality and best user experience to our customers. Development work is ongoing. However, at this time we have no specific timing to announce.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of MyLink’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Writing about tech is hard. But that's why you can make a good living at it if you can do it well. We now know what happens when you don't do it well. Now let's all get back to work.