Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jivin’ up the Jeep — then and now

Do Jeeps have a unique power to bring out the inner hacker in their owners? Based on the sheer number of Jeep kits on the market, I'd say yes.

Maybe it has something to do with the rough-and-ready, take-on-all-comers personality of the Jeep brand. Or maybe it has to do with the inherent flexibility of the Jeep design. Or maybe it's simply because the brand attracts self-reliant do-it-yourselfers. Whatever the explanation, the history of Jeep modding is almost as old as the Jeep itself.

Jivin' then...
For instance, here are some examples of "jivin' up the Jeep" from a 1947 issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine. (I found these on — you have got to check this site out.)

And jivin' now...
With a history like this, is it any wonder the QNX concept team also chose to mod a Jeep, albeit with 21st-century tech? For instance, they added their own digital instrument cluster:

and some apps:

not to mention a virtual mechanic:

And is it any wonder they had so much fun doing this?

Hey, do you plan on attending SAE Convergence in October? If so, come by the QNX booth (815) for an even closer look at how the QNX concept team jived up this Wrangler with the connectivity and personalization features of the QNX CAR application platform.

Highlights (er, mods) of the Wrangler include:
  • Customizable HMI for reskinning and personalization
  • Ability to download apps
  • Multimedia: streaming radio, mobile connectivity, album art, etc
  • One-touch Bluetooth pairing with NFC
  • HD hands-free communication with conversational voice recognition
  • Reconfigurable digital instrument cluster
  • Tablet-based rear-seat entertainment
  • HTML5 framework for leveraging mobile ecosystem

Monday, September 24, 2012

MirrorLink misunderstood: 8 myths that need busting

If you're new to MirrorLink, it's a technology that bridges the mobile phone and the car. It allows specially written apps running on the phone to be displayed on the car's head unit, where the user can interact with them.

MirrorLink is intended to extend the life of in-vehicle systems by allowing them to interact with mobile content and to support new features that didn’t exist when the car rolled off the assembly line.

Here's an illustration of how it works:

MirrorLink in-car communication. The protocol between the head unit and the phone can run over several transports, including USB, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. This example assumes Bluetooth for the audio back-channel.

When I talk to people in the automotive and mobile industries, I find they share a number of common misconceptions about MirrorLink, which I’d like to clear up. So let's get started, shall we?

  1. MirrorLink is an Android technology. In fact, MirrorLink works with multiple mobile platforms. Phones using Android can support it, but so can phones from any other phone maker that supports the standard. Even Apple phones could support it, though Apple has currently chosen to go their own route with Apple-specific solutions.

  2. MirrorLink allows any mobile app to run in the car. This is incorrect. A MirrorLink app can run in the car only if the car maker grants “trust” to that app. Each car maker has a different concept of what brands to promote, what features are safe, or what works well with each car. So, in reality, each app will be enabled depending on the individual make — or even model — of car.

  3. MirrorLink promotes “driver distracting” apps. Also incorrect. MirrorLink is an enabling technology that doesn’t promote any type of app in particular. In fact, because the car maker must grant trust to an app, the app developer can't control what apps run in the car. That responsibility remains the domain of car makers, who tend to avoid anything that will cause distraction when displayed on a front-seat screen.

  4. MirrorLink is the only way to connect an app to the car. There are in fact two others: iPod Out and HTML5. Apple supports iPod Out for Apple devices, which allows selected applications to output analog video to the head unit. (Note that the new iPhone 5 doesn’t support iPod Out.) HTML5 also allows mobile apps to run in the head unit, though its use in car-to-phone bridging is still in the early stages. QNX Software Systems has demonstrated concept vehicles that use BlackBerry Bridge (an HTML5-based technology) to connect an HTML5 app on a BlackBerry phone to the car’s head unit.

  5. Mobile app makers will benefit most from MirrorLink. In fact, car makers may end up taking best advantage of the technology. That’s because they can use MirrorLink to customize and create apps, and to refresh those apps as a way of delivering fresh, new functions to their customers. MirrorLink gives them the ability to do this using a standardized protocol supported by most mobile platforms. Car makers could use MirrorLink very effectively, even if they never allowed any third party apps into their cars.

  6. HTML5 and MirrorLink are incompatible. Not necessarily true. Current versions of MirrorLink use the VNC protocol to exchange graphical data. None of the advantages of HTML5 would be incompatible with a future version of MirrorLink; in fact, some members of the Connected Car Consortium (CCC), including QNX Software Systems, would likely be interested in merging these two standards. That would result in a new version of MirrorLink that uses HTML5 as the underlying communication protocol. (The MirrorLink specification is controlled by the Car Connectivity Consortium, of which QNX is a member.)

    Even if MirrorLink does go to HTML5, the industry would still need a VNC-based form of MirrorLink. VNC has much lighter requirements on the head-unit side, so it makes more sense than HTML5 if the car doesn’t have a high-powered CPU or lots of memory. The broadest possible option would be to have phone apps support multiple versions of MirrorLink (today's version with VNC plus a future version with HTML5) and to use whichever one makes sense, depending on what the car supports.

  7. MirrorLink obviates the need for car-downloadable apps. Yes, MirrorLink capability is somewhat similar in purpose to downloading apps into the car; they both extend the functionality of the car after it leaves the factory. Because the customer’s phone will almost certainly be newer than the car’s electronics, it will have a faster CPU, giving the raw speed advantage to a MirrorLink app on the mobile. The MirrorLink app will also have guaranteed data access since the hosting phone will always have a data pipe — something that isn't certain on the car side of the equation.

    On the other hand, MirrorLink doesn’t give an app access to car features that would available to a car-downloaded app — features such as vehicle bus access, telematics features, or the navigation system. Also, a car-downloaded app would likely have a faster HMI than any off-board app, even if the mobile had a faster CPU, because of latencies inherent to screen replication. The car-downloaded app would also have better visual integration, as it could take full advantage of the car features, instead of appearing as a bolt-on product. Other factors, based on automaker control, compatibility, or product roadmaps could also favor an in-car solution. Even if you could address some of these issues, there would still be enough reasons for MirrorLink and an auto app store to live side-by-side.

  8. MirrorLink apps can be built today. This is technically true. But, in their enthusiasm, new converts can sometimes forget that cars need to support MirrorLink for anything to actually work. Currently, only aftermarket car stereos support MirrorLink; no production vehicles support it. So if you’re a mobile app developer, the market for MirrorLink apps today is negligible. But expect this situation to improve dramatically over the next two to three years as production vehicles start to ship with this capability built-in.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

So where is QNX going in automotive?

Want a short and sweet intro on what QNX is doing in the automotive industry? Then be sure to check out "A Look At The Near Future Of In-Car Technology," published this week in The Washington Post and in Motor Authority. (Same article in both cases, though Motor Authority has more pictures :-)

The article is based on an interview with my friend and colleague Andy Gryc. It covers the bases, from how QNX technology helps automakers project their brand identities to how it will enable a new generation of apps in the car.

Enough of my blather. Check out the article and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Will adaptive cruise control spell the end of traffic jams?

Did you know that rear-end collisions account for about 30% of car crashes? For that reason alone, widespread adoption of adaptive cruise control (ACC) can’t come too soon. ACC helps prevent such collisions in two ways: 1) by maintaining a safe, preset distance from the car ahead; and 2) by applying the brakes quickly if that car comes to a sudden stop — more quickly, in fact, than most humans.

Good news is, ACC may soon become pervasive. The folks at Global Industry Analysts crunched some numbers and determined that annual installations of ACC systems will reach 6.9 million units by 2017.

Mind you, ACC isn’t just about safety; it’s also about traffic flow. For instance, a study by Suzuki and Nakatsuji (2003) suggests that travel times shrink significantly when at least 20% of vehicles on the road use ACC. And a study by Kesting et al. (2008) suggests that, in some scenarios, traffic congestion simply disappears when 25% of vehicles use ACC.

Example of adaptive cruise control
Source: Volvo
The picture isn’t all rosy, however. ACC may improve traffic flow, but not in every situation, such as merging from an on-ramp onto a freeway. That said, a study by L. C. Davis (2010) suggests that a technique called cooperative merging can significantly the improve the performance of ACC in this scenario. Meanwhile, a study by Jerath and Brennan (2010) suggests that the benefits associated with ACC may come at a possible cost — “self-organized” traffic jams. This effect, caused mostly by human behavior, may occur in a traffic system where most, but not all, cars use ACC.

Caveats aside, ACC systems continue to evolve. Some drivers tend to slam their brakes and use heavy throttle in traffic, creating congestive shockwaves that ripple down the highway. According to J.C. Power, newer versions of ACC help alleviate this problem by smoothly modulating brakes and throttle in stop-and-go traffic.

And now, a look at ACC from 1939…
If you think the concept of ACC is relatively new, think again. Over 70 years ago, GM created a “Futurama” exhibit for the 1939 World's Fair that showcased a scale-model highway in which cars automatically maintain a safe, efficient distance from one another.

GM predicted this technology would be in place by 1960. They got the timing wrong, but the idea right. Click the video to see a surprisingly prescient look at the car of the future — I’ve already bookmarked the spot for you:

What about you? Have you had much experience with ACC? And if so, has it helped or hindered your driving experience?

Monday, September 10, 2012

QNX CAR 2 — the extended version

The world of video is a ruthless one; just as we posted the QNX CAR demo it was out of date.

But, hold on a minute. As I write this I realize it’s not the video world at all; it’s the software world that creates new technology at breakneck speed. And QNX certainly does its part.

The QNX CAR 2 application platform has come a long way in a matter of months. We needed to update the original video to keep pace with the technology but also to address customer demand for more detailed information.

So this video is a step-by-step demo – definitely not for the tire kicker. But if you really want details on what automakers and tier ones can achieve with QNX CAR technology, hit play.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Drivers want ADAS, but not so sure about autonomous cars: study

In May, market researcher Penn Schoen Berland canvassed 2,506 American drivers about their driving habits. The findings, presented last week at a Ford press conference, are sobering:

  • 76% of respondents admitted to eating or to drinking non-alcoholic drinks while behind the wheel
  • 53% admitted to talking on a handheld phone
  • 33% admitted to fiddling with their mobile gadgets
  • 55% admitted to driving beyond the speed limit
  • 37% admitted to driving when too tired

And here’s the kicker: 99% of respondents claimed they were safe drivers.

I know, it's a major disconnect. But here's what I find interesting: most respondents also expressed interest in driver assistance systems. In other words, even self-proclaimed safe drivers tacitly admitted they could use help now and then. For instance:

  • 8 out of 10 respondents expressed interest in technologies that would help them stay in their lane
  • 9 out of 10 expressed interest in technologies that could detect an impending collision and slow the car down

Respondents also expressed interest in systems that could detect a car in their blind-spot, provide voice-activated phone dialing, or park the car automatically. That said, only 39% said they’d feel comfortable riding an autonomous car.

My take? That number will grow significantly once more people drive cars equipped with adaptive cruise control, automatic parallel park, and other driver-assist systems. The more people become accustomed to such systems, the more they'll accept a car that does most of the driving for them.

For media coverage of this study, visit Forbes, Scientific American, and the Wall Street Journal.