Susan Kuchinskas looks at the potential of (and barriers to) OEM-branded apps delivered to the phone in EVs and fleets
While apps to unlock the door are nice, there's room for much more. Helping car owners feel connected to the brand with robust functionality can be done, even if there’s some rattling of the value chain.
Last July, Ford partnered with MapQuest and AT&T to equip its plug-in vehicle drivers with the MyFord Mobile app. It integrates constantly updated information on charging stations and a trip planner that helps drivers cope with range anxiety. "We identified that the customer wanted a single app that could be a complete app for the electric vehicle experience," says Bill Frykman, manager of business and product development at Ford Motor Co. “Some of the other apps for electric vehicles that were launched did not have charge station data integrated. We did that.” (For more on electric vehicles, see Industry insight: Electric vehicles and Industry insight: Telematics, electric vehicles and the connected home.)
By building MyFord Mobile in-house, Frykman says, "We can integrate the onboard resources, such as Synch, with the offboard resources like MyFord Mobile and offer a seamless experience."
In this case, the app needs access to in-vehicle systems and the ability to receive data from the vehicle, such as how much farther the car can go, as well as the more common functions such as remote start to precondition the vehicle while it's still plugged in. (For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps.)
Technical and security challenges
There were technical challenges, and also security challenges, such as making sure that someone can't erroneously or maliciously unlock the car or track its location. Ford wanted to take charge of making security strong and the technology reliable.
Ford has the most experience with connected-car services, thanks to its early lead with Synch, and Frykman says that having solid software competency in-house was an advantage. That said, Ford relied on partners including Microsoft, MapQuest, Airbiquity and Acquity Group. "The auto industry has a history of collaborating with appropriate experts. We have world-class suppliers developing safety systems, and that's the same thing we're doing here," Frykman says.
While Ford thinks in terms of tier 1s and 2s, when it comes to developing its software and connected-car services, the roles may shift more than they do in the mechanical realm. With the number of partners and service or content providers involved in MyFord Mobile, Frykman says, "It's hard to say if someone is a tier 1 or 2; they play different roles in different services.
Unsnarling the ecosystem
For OEMs that don't have as much software expertise, NNG hopes to provide a simpler way to deliver branded apps. NNG's iGO Navigation Engine includes features for EVs, including a charge-range algorithm that can access onboard databases and react to dynamic external data such as available charge spots. Its products are white-label, and Michael Reali, senior vice president for automotive OEM, sees carmakers increasingly wanting to control the branding of companion apps.
In 2013, NNG is launching a service that combines a companion app with a line fit solution. The company already offers these individually. What's different, Reali says, is the new level of integration to be delivered: "We feel that choosing a separate phone technology from what is in the car is overly complicated currently, and our goal is to make this a simple and easy-to-use solution for the consumer that also furthers the reach of the car brand." (For more from Michael Reali, see Q&A: Providing local telematics services from a global platform.)
He's noticed that automakers tend to want overly complicated solutions that later must be simplified: "I think they have many choices, which can be a bad thing. I think OEMs look at the ecosystem and see a mess of choices, and none of them are tightly integrated out of the box." NNG sees the most workable business model to be providing the companion free with the car, with premium features available at an additional charge.
The current car app ecosystem is a mess, Reali says. A simplified model would have navigation as a standard feature in the car, with a companion app provided by the OEM. The route planning, the map updates, the extra features would be purchased over the phone, with an additional charge for bringing content and services from the phone to the car. In that case, the OEM would receive a revenue share for that premium item, and NNG is prepared to handle billing and sharing revenue through its backend commerce system.
For its branded smartphone application, GreenRoad, provider of driver performance management services for fleets, took a different tack, starting with the phone and planning to connect to in-car systems later. In October, it released a beta version of GreenRoad Smartphone Edition, planning for the general release of the Android-based app this year, with an iOS version next year. (For more on fleets, see Industry insight: Fleet telematics.)
This product uses smartphone native functionality, including GPS and built-in accelerometers, without needing to connect to an embedded or installed unit. Drivers download the app, and place their phones into a vehicle mount. The company thinks it's solved some of the difficulties of using the highly mobile phone to track vehicle motion.
"The algorithms we have in place have been trained to understand the difference between a legitimate vehicle maneuver and an out-of-cradle event. When the phone senses that the vehicle has stopped moving and I take it out of the cradle, a voice says, 'GreenRoad trip ended,'" says Tanya Roberts, SVP of marketing.
The business case is straightforward. GreenRoad Smartphone Edition is designed to broaden the company's market, appealing to the kind of business and delivery fleets characterized by rapid vehicle turnover, short-term leases and rotating fleet equipment.
Fleet telematics solutions in the US
The penetration of fleet telematics solutions in the United States is approximately 15 percent, according to company chairman and CEO Jim Heeger, with penetration of driver performance and safety applications even lower. "By porting the solution to the smartphone and being able to do the data capture there, you take out the need for a dedicated device in the vehicle. And that opens up the market to new fleets for which it otherwise wouldn't be economical," he says.
Eventually, GreenRoad does plan to tie this application to the car's systems, likely via a Bluetooth dongle connecting with the engine connection module. That would allow the application to access odometer and other readings from the engine.
GreenRoad sees the smartphone edition ultimately complementing installed products as well. Says Roberts, "This provides sophisticated, real-time, in-the-moment feedback. While established fleets that already have telematics in the vehicle are reluctant to add another, I'm seeing interest across the board from fleets that want to provide real-time support in helping drivers to improve but already have devices in the vehicle."
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.
For more on apps, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps.
For more on fleets, see Industry insight: Fleet telematics.
For the latest on fleets, visit Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2013 on March 19-20 in Amsterdam.
For the latest on apps, visit Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich.
For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics India and South Asia 2013 on April 17-18 in Bangalore, Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 7-8 in London, Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6 and Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.