Jerri-Lynn Scofield explores how safety concerns and regulatory issues might affect demand for socially networked vehicles like the new Rinspeed BamBoo concept car
At the Geneva Motor Show, Harman International Industries, Inc. launched the world’s first social networking vehicle: the Rinspeed BamBoo electric concept car, which allows drivers to access information from the Internet or their smartphones while driving.
Last September, Harman acquired Aha Mobile, Inc and, with it, its Aha Radio platform for translating text-based digital content, such as Twitter or Facebook feeds and sms and email messages.
Aha Radio translates the information to voice for use by smartphones or in-vehicle entertainment systems, a safer, more driver-friendly way to access digital content than using a cell phone or texting.
The Rinspeed BamBoo concept car incorporates Harman’s next-generation, scalable infotainment platform, which allows for various network and connectivity options, including playing voice output from the Aha Radio app through the vehicle’s audio system.
So far, no other company has such a platform strategy in place.
Instead, competitors rely on point solutions, according to Robert Acker, VP and GM at Aha Radio at Harman International.
“The problem with [these] solutions is they don’t scale,” says Acker, who was Aha’s CEO before the Harman acquisition.
He contends that it doesn’t work for each manufacturer to pursue its own solution; rather, an industry-wide approach is necessary.
Eyes on the road
To date, 30 US states have adopted bans on texting while driving, and eight have prohibited all handheld cell phone usage.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood reiterated in late January the federal government’s commitment to preventing distracted driving. (For more on distracted driving, see ‘Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps’ and ‘Making The Connected Car A Reality’.)
This could lead to a nationwide ban on texting or certain uses of cell phones while driving.
Harman’s technology would allow drivers and passengers to access traffic information; play podcasts; listen to weather channels or local, national, or global news; monitor e-mails, sms texts, Facebook and Twitter feeds; and listen to Internet-based or satellite radio services, without compromising driver safety.
“Every input is being read out to you, so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road,” said Hans Roth, Harman’s director of global business and marketing.
Users can consume information but, with limited exceptions—such as a ‘shout out’ function, which allows users to broadcast information about an accident—they cannot compose or transmit information.
“The Aha Radio concept brings social networking into the car in a way that is as intuitive and easy to use as radio,” according to Darrin Shewchuk, Harman’s director of corporate communications.
Switching between options “is as easy as changing from one radio station to another,” adds Roth.
Will consumers want social media in the car?
Not everyone is convinced that socially networked cars will appeal to consumers, though.
Rochelle Grober, a computer consultant, Silicon Valley veteran, and key player at Loopt Inc., one of the first location-based social networking companies, thinks drivers will limit the use they make of social networking options in smart cars.
For starters, consider the simple issue of using your social network to poll or query friends while driving.
You arrive at a distant location, which is home to many of your friends, and want to know where to stay or eat.
You tweet or update your status with your request. Now what?
“You’re still driving around very near where you expect to stop, but no one responds, at least not for some minutes,” Grober explains.
“Maybe it's five minutes or an hour, but you won’t have a consensus from your group of friends for 20 minutes or more.”
Your social network is therefore not particularly useful when you need an immediate response, Grober argues.
And how about all those abbreviations to stay within 140 characters for Twitter or to get those messages out fast: How great are they going to sound read aloud by a computer program?
Acker concedes the quality issues with broadcasting straight from Facebook or Twitter feeds.
With Facebook feeds, Acker says, Aha’s system originally achieved only about 50% accuracy in translating data to voice successfully. That rate has now improved to 80-90%.
With Twitter, the results have been more mixed, depending on the source of the feed.
Celebrity tweets “work really well,” he notes, but “when people get really crazy on Twitter and use lots of non-standard abbreviations, the voice output is less useful.”
What about regulation?
Harman has been working with other electronics companies and OEMs to adapt and offer its technologies more widely.
In January, Harman announced that Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. had selected the Aha Radio platform to incorporate in its new line of in-dash navigation products.
At present, no current customers employ the Aha Radio platform in an OEM version off the lot, but “Harman is in development to offer this in OEM systems soon,” according to Roth.
The company offers a variety of different options, and an OEM can decide which of these options to load into a particular car.
“The Internet is a better platform than satellite receivers and any kind of radio or TV receiver put into a car because it can handle any information stream sent to it without requiring different instruments,” says James Moody, a Washington DC-based public interest lawyer and expert on regulation and technological innovation.
“Once you have an Internet platform in your car, you don’t really need anything else. You don’t need a Fodor’s guide, map book, GPS gizmo, FM, AM, or satellite radio, or CD player, since this can all be handled by one piece of technology.” (For more on the influence of the Internet on telematics, see ‘What telematics firms can learn from Web 2.0’.)
Although Aha’s technology is largely a one-way system, “The radio model is just a foot in the door,” Moody suggests.
“The next step will be taken. It’s all about interactivity. Radio until now has been a one-way activity. The new business model makes it two-way, and creates opportunities to interact with the song or commercial you just heard.”
Regardless of the status of the federal effort to curb distracted driving, the Aha system is unlikely to be affected by such bans.
“Car radio has been around since the 1920s,” says Moody, so “further innovation will not attract any further regulatory scrutiny.”
Nor, for that matter, is regulation likely to thwart development of these more interactive options.
Federal scrutiny “will stop with cell phones and not mess with integrated systems,” Moody predicts, largely because developers have wised up.
“The cell phone guys were asleep at the switch, literally. The people offering these platform-based services in your car will be able to anticipate the regulatory risk and deal with it politically.”
Jerri-Lynn Scofield is a regular contributor to TU.
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