Can the Auto Industry Make Silicon Valley Developers Feel Welcome?

It’s often said that today’s automobiles are close to being to computers on wheels, with more than 50 million lines of code—10 times more than what’s in a Boeing 777 jet—controlling everything from braking systems to navigation units to entertainment. Software development has never been more critical to a vehicle’s design and operation.

But the shift to smart cars raises a number of tough questions for the auto industry. Can Detroit, where the U.S. auto industry is still headquartered, convince software developers that working for car manufacturers is a career path just as potentially lucrative and satisfying as, say, going to work for Microsoft or Google? Will Silicon Valley acknowledge that it has something to learn from Detroit in terms of making products that operate reliably across decades of iteration? How can Detroit entice young developers at the forefront of making fun, innovative apps that customers love to make products for the in-vehicle environment? Will young drivers who have been connected to the Internet since birth truly demand that their cars have the same app and Web capabilities as smartphones?

These questions were part of the subtext at last week’s Telematics Detroit conference, an annual event that has grown to become the world’s largest forum dedicated to the future of connected cars, drawing thousands of auto manufacturers, suppliers, telematics companies, and software developers to discuss trends, infotainment, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, security, safety, and more.

Most of those questions remain unanswered, and it’s possible to talk with four different people in the industry and hear four completely different points of view—as we did for this article. But what is clear is that many software developers find the prospect of working with the auto industry daunting. After all, Silicon Valley software culture is praised for being agile and innovative while Detroit’s car culture is often accused of being slow and secretive.

Within the telematics industry, there are different opinions on the wisdom of recruiting developers from outside the auto industry, but few viewpoints that garner universal agreement. Anyone paying attention to the auto industry knows that connected cars and the increasing receptivity toward outside innovation are popular topics of conversation, but the specifics of how connected cars will evolve to satisfy both tech-savvy consumers and safety regulations are still up in the air.

At a connected car summit called AppConext Auto that was held in mid-May at Southfield’s Lawrence Tech University, the “developer dilemma”—whether the app developer/gamer crowd should attempt to design products for the auto industry—was highlighted in a presentation by Abhinav Gupta, CEO of Game Scorpion.

Gupta feels that there are a handful of things auto manufacturers should do to make the industry more attractive to outside software developers: The auto industry should make it easy for developers to design in-vehicle software; in-vehicle software operating systems should be open and accessible to developers working outside the industry; cars should support popular platforms like Android and iOS; developers should be protected from lawsuits if anything goes wrong with an app while a driver is using it; and auto manufacturers should clearly communicate how software developers will make money from the products they invent.

“Car companies really want to get in on [recruiting outside developer talent] because consumers will demand it,” Gupta says. “And it opens up a whole new revenue stream for developers.”

Gupta, who has developed more than 40 apps for more than 20 different markets worldwide, says he sees similarities between the current auto industry and the mobile app industry of 2008, when “very young developers” took over.

For senior developers back then, apps were scary, Gupta says. Kids already loved … Next Page »

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