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Social Networking and the Connected Car

How the telematics industry is hoping to make social networking a safe and responsible part of the future in-car experience. What ever happened to good old-fashioned correspondence between friends? Hand-written letters, long-distance phone calls, the occasional joyous reunion? These days, friends trade tweets in real time and update their Facebook profiles with mind-boggling regularity.

The result: Friends always know what friends are up to and where they are, be that in a movie theater, on a bike, or yes, in a car. Which begs the question, just what is social networking's place in the automobile of the future?

While some safety regulators blanch at the thought of motorists twittering or Facebooking as they drive, some companies in the personal navigation and infotainment industries are eager to integrate social networking into cars in a safe and responsible way.

New competitive advantages

The personal navigation device (PND) industry has shown particular interest. With the advent of a free turn-by-turn navigation application from Google, the likes of Garmin, TomTom, and Telmap need a new competitive advantage.

If they can incorporate social networking into their products, it could be a win-win situation: Customers can bring established communities with them to the personal navigation experience and generate content through that network, while companies can harness the free networking that social sites enable.

If one friend is using a product, the theory goes, a hundred friends are using it, and each one of those hundred friends has another hundred friends. And the growth goes viral from there.

Navigation application providers “require revenue from the sales of navigation applications to the smart-phone and PND markets,” says Gerrit Schneemann, analyst for portable navigation and location-based services (LBS) at iSuppli. “Because of this, these companies now are seeking to enhance the usability of their offerings and to extend them into as many other mobile sectors as possible. Navigation application providers and PND makers believe social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace provide a way to accomplish both goals.”

The apps have arrived

Numerous navigation applications with integrated social networking functions have already debuted in 2010. Navigon in February announced that the next version of its iPhone application will feature a Twitter and Facebook tie-in that allows users to broadcast their location, destination, and estimated time of arrival to friends and followers.

Verizon Wireless announced a similar feature for its VZ Navigator 5.0 navigation application. At CES 2010, ALK Technologies announced LiveLink, a feature in the CoPilot Live navigation application that allows CoPilot users to share their locations with friends on Facebook.

Likewise, last year during Nokia World, the Finnish handset maker announced Lifecasting with Ovi, which allows users of enabled handsets to include location information while updating their Facebook status.

Meanwhile, Telmap and Intrinsyc have partnered with LBS provider GyPSii to integrate GyPSii's OpenExperience Applications Programming Interface (API) to provide customers of the Telmap 5 application and upcoming Destinator versions with location-based social networking features.

Finally, on the PND side, Best Buy's Insignia-branded connected PNDs have been on the market with Twitter integration. In this case, an update is posted to the user's Twitter account when starting to navigate to a location. Another update is posted when the user arrives.

The future in-car experience

"The integration of navigation and location content in social networks is the logical next step in a mobile space that continues to move towards mashed-up contextual content, which is highly personalized for each user," Schneemann says. "Such integration allows users to easily populate their existing social networks with new location-aware, real-time content, enhances their experience of the social network, and at the same time extends the usability of their navigation application or device."

The potential to usher social networking into automobiles hasn't been lost on in-car infotainment companies and automobile manufacturers either. At this year's International Motor Show in Geneva, both MINI and smart showcased new technologies that integrate iPhones (and all their bells and whistles, including social networking) into the cars' infotainment capabilities.

The result: When drivers plug in their iPhones, they can access various connected services through the head units of the cars, including streaming Web radio, travel recommendations, traffic data, weather, and turn-by-turn directions, not to mention Twitter and Facebook.

Meanwhile, in the US, Ford has unveiled a new development platform that encourages open innovation for in-car communication. In many of its cars, Ford currently features the Ford Sync platform, which enables drivers to operate mobile phones or media players by voice command and offers additional voice-prompted features like 911 Assist, turn-by-turn navigation, real-time traffic, and weather reports.

The new open-source platform, however, is pushing innovators to take in-car infotainment further, specifically with an eye on Web 2.0.

The future is now

“The impetus to create the program was to help us define the future in-car experience,” says Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader of vehicle design and infotainment for Ford. “We see opportunities to leverage the ‘cloud’ and accessing and interacting with social networks and information sharing to help enhance the driving experience.”

So how might Twitter or Facebook be useful in your head unit? Say you roll into a new city on a road trip and don’t know where to eat or sleep. Theoretically, you could ask Sync for recommendations. Sync, in turn, could send out a tweet or change your Facebook status and, once your friends have replied, relay that information to you in a menu with turn-by-turn navigation included.

Prasad cautions that such uses are still a ways off. Nonetheless, Ford has partnered with the University of Michigan to offer a course on embedded automotive telematics.

Students in the course, which started in January, are working in teams to develop Sync applications that create social networking interfaces. The best app will be installed in Ford’s first test mule, a Ford Fiesta.

“The explosion of mobile applications just proves that customers want applications to accompany them in their everyday lives,” says Prasad. “There is obviously a natural progression of application development from the mobile device to the car.”

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

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