Seattle’s OpenCar Wants to Bring ‘Long Tail’ of Apps Into Vehicles

As we all know, there’s an app for that, whatever it is. But chances are, it’s not available for your car.

So perhaps you stick with the one on your smartphone, furtively glancing down—dangerously, illegally—when you should be focused on driving.

OpenCar, a Seattle startup, has an audacious goal that could help solve that problem, while also opening up a vast new market for app developers. The company is creating common toolsets and a clearinghouse to link developers and automakers that could unlock the “long tail” of interesting apps for the car. The key challenge is integrating them safely and seamlessly with each car’s unique combination of sensors, screens, controls, and trim.

OpenCar founder and CEO Jeff Payne calls today’s cars “an imperfect consumer product proposition in many ways,” particularly when compared to smartphones. As he sees it, a smartphone is hardware and software that becomes significantly more valuable to its owner once it has been personalized with music, contacts, and, more importantly, apps to do a staggering array of things, touching almost every aspect of modern life.

The car, by contrast, is the product of “a heavy manufacturing discipline… that has been focused on safely and comfortably getting people around with good gas economy, but has not been focused on those sort of personal aspects of the product until very recently,” he says.

That is changing rapidly, of course, as consumers demand more of the connectivity and capabilities they carry with them in their pockets to be available behind the wheel, and automakers respond with an eye toward safety and maintaining control of their carefully cultivated brands.

Payne says this “tidal change” taking place within one of the largest and most important product categories in the world presents a range of opportunities for entrepreneurs with expertise in software, services, and mobile devices.

“Seattle is really an extraordinary technical community for this kind of a project,” he says.

Washington state has a significant but sometimes overlooked cluster of automotive IT and telematics companies, which enable information to be transmitted to and from vehicles. I count well over 20 companies with headquarters or significant operations in the state working in this industry. A report prepared last year for the state Commerce Department by the industry consulting firm P3 Group describes Washington as “a potential technology hub for the automotive industry” thanks to existing strengths in complementary fields such as software, mobile and telecommunications, data management, and aviation systems. The report says that the in-vehicle “infotainment” and telematics market will exceed $80 billion globally this year.

OpenCar aims to grab a piece of that market and enable others to do so, too. The company has been quietly working since spring 2011 and announced itself to the world last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It has signed up Mazda as the first automaker to use its OpenCar Connect platform. Scores of app developers—many with automotive industry focus—expressed interest, Payne says.

OpenCar CEO Jeff Payne.

OpenCar CEO Jeff Payne.

The company’s approach is modeled in part on patterns Payne and his colleagues have observed in the evolution of other industries.

“It made sense to us that, given that open software platforms always seem to prevail in the end, we’ll just jump to the punch line on that,” he says.

At its heart, OpenCar Connect is a software platform designed to provide the capabilities developers need, and motivate them to build applications for it.

“There are very practical measures that you can take to reduce friction for [developers] as they’re trying to get their head around this entirely new product category called the car,” Payne says.

And, needless to say, cars are dramatically different from the consumer electronics devices most developers are building apps for today.

“They not only are just bubbling over with data when they’re moving—that is really intriguing for new categories of applications—but they have very strict requirements for the way that you interact with software in a car, because the cognitive load on a driver is heavy,” Payne says.

Many of these requirements fall under a broad category known as human-machine interaction, HMI, which is a major focus of automakers, who view it not only as an important aspect of safety, but also as an extension of their brands.

Individual automakers are already favoring certain high-level HMI models, Payne says. Ford, for example, has placed greater focus on voice interaction. (Ford led the industry with the introduction in 2007 of its Sync “infotainment” system, which relies on voice commands and is based on Windows Embedded Automotive software from Microsoft. The Redmond-based software giant anchors Washington’s automotive IT industry.) Other approaches focus on convenient placement of controls on the steering wheel.

Cadillac, for example, presents apps in its “CUE” system to the driver “in all of their glory,” Payne says, making use of touch screens and proximity sensors to create an experience familiar to tablet users.

“The new view of the freedom machine is inside the car,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of advertising placing the driver in the power center. This is what’s selling the car, the dashboard with all of this command and control stuff.”

Not surprisingly, OpenCar hopes to play an important role in bringing the automotive IT reality up to speed with the marketing hype, at least when it comes to the development of a broad array of apps.

It starts with third-party developers, who, Payne argues, should be very excited about building apps for connected cars, but also face real barriers to entry.

In short, automakers are the gatekeepers of design and safety. That mindset extends to apps, which have to be seamlessly integrated into the car, and therefore are curated by the automakers themselves. Distracting on-screen movement has to be limited. The interaction model must be consistent across all apps in a given vehicle, including things like list ordering and information hierarchies. Styling and graphics should match other displays.

To that end, OpenCar is trying to create the conditions for developers to easily build apps that meet these specifications at a high level.

That’s important, because most app developers don’t have the incentive to learn deeply about those requirements and do the extra work required to customize their wares for each new vehicle, which might see 700,000 units shipped a year, Payne says. (Compare that to the 1.5 million new Android phones activated each day.)

OpenCar has built a free software development kit (SDK) that Payne describes as essentially “an HTML framework for running apps in a car.” He says that the majority of the source code in the SDK is open, helping a developer learn about the underlying principles of app development appropriate to the car.

The main purpose is to allow a developer to create apps for a generic car interface. The apps can then be easily adapted to match specific vehicle requirements.

OpenCar reviews the apps through automated testing and some human evaluation, and provides feedback on improvements that could make them more appealing to automakers. The company is motivated to make developers’ projects a success, Payne says.

“We’re not going to charge developers anything,” he emphasizes.

The business models for developers would be similar to current models for mobile devices, with options including free apps that support other endeavors, app sales, subscriptions, and advertising. (In-vehicle advertising raises lots of issues that the auto industry is starting to hash out now. Payne says early experiments focus on location-based offers such as a coupon for the drycleaner that you pass each day on the way to work.)

Ultimately, a developer using the OpenCar platform decides when the app is done. It would then be placed in OpenCar’s online clearinghouse for third-party apps, where automakers will be able to browse for ideas they might include in future vehicles. The clearinghouse will be available in late spring, Payne says.

A second OpenCar development kit will allow automakers, system integrators, and suppliers to essentially create a profile that represents the specific make and model they’re working on—essentially meeting the app developers halfway. These profiles capture the car’s unique telematics, graphic layout, controls, voice interaction model, and other elements. Apps developed on the OpenCar platform can be easily made to match these unique profiles.

An app for Mazda on the OpenCar Connect platform.

An app for Mazda on the OpenCar Connect platform.

OpenCar plans to make money by licensing its platform to automakers, Payne says, and by offering professional services to help them build their unique vehicle profiles and make use of specialized tools that faithfully render the environment in their vehicles for developers, leading to better apps.

In the end, Payne sees something akin to the streamlined tools and marketplaces available to developers creating apps for Android and iOS, which make it relatively easy to build and publish smartphone and tablet apps today.

“We can create a system where everyone’s focusing on their own domain of excellence,” Payne says. “Right now we have a system where the integrators are being forced to go out and learn about the apps, and the app developers are being forced to learn about the HMI, which only scales up to about as much as it has right now. We have about a dozen, 15 apps that we see over and over in all our cars.”

And that’s where a platform like OpenCar’s could really pay off. Payne says his company could unlock a much broader array of apps for vehicles that would be highly useful to small audiences—call it the long-tail curve of in-car apps.

Payne’s favorite example is an app for people who commute by car ferry. “I want Washington State Ferries (WSF) service to tell me, ‘I can see you’re racing for the boat. You’ve already missed it. That’s OK. The queue is this long and you’re going to be on the 5:20 boat. Don’t worry.'” (This idea is not at all far-fetched. Late last year WSF began a pilot project to show travelers the estimated number of vehicle spaces available on certain upcoming sailings.)

Payne acknowledges the ferry wait-time app has limited appeal and probably would not be built under the status quo for automotive app development—the status quo OpenCar is challenging.

The 19-person company has been privately funded to this point, but has not yet taken venture capital investment, Payne says. That is likely to change if 2014 unfolds as he hopes it will. A large part of the funding has come from its partnership with Mazda. “We’ve done a lot of things that will benefit Mazda in a big way,” he says.

Payne says Mazda recognizes that the model for safely bringing lots of app choices to vehicles is not for each automaker to publish its own development kit—though some, including Ford and General Motors, have done so. Unless a company owned a monopoly share of the market, “you’re still not going to get developers to use a particular SDK and standardize around that as the sole mechanism,” he says.

He says the benefits of the OpenCar platform will grow with each automaker that joins, as it will provide a bigger addressable market for developers, and in turn a broader set of apps for customers of those participating automakers to choose from.

OpenCar isn’t the only company trying to better integrate apps and automobiles. Google, through its newly announced Open Automotive Alliance, presents another option for Android developers. The alliance includes Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai, and Nvidia, and promises open standards and customization of the Android platform in vehicles.

Payne’s early read on the OAA is that it could be complementary to OpenCar, but also “potentially competitive.”

Meanwhile, Apple, with iOS 7, promised last summer seamless integration of its devices through a car’s in-dash system for properly equipped vehicles beginning this year. More than a dozen manufacturers have indicated plans to include the feature.

With these moves by major players in mobile apps and innovative approaches from upstarts like OpenCar, 2014 is shaping up to be a significant year in the growing competition to define the app platform for cars—a major frontier in software.

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