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Inspired Software: When Automotive Rolls into Software Territory

The Second Post in Our Three-Part Series on NXT Automotive Trends

October 1, 2020
by Richard FarkasLouise Schenk
inspired software

This is the second installment of our three-part NXT series on automotive trends. The first piece covered the evolution of the in-vehicle interface. We suspect this one will drive you to rethink what the in-car software experience could be.

Even the most aspirational car infotainment software is lackluster compared to the apps on our smartphones. Handfuls of free navigation apps—Waze, Google Maps, Here WeGo among them—offer a superior experience to what’s built in to even the nicest cars. Listening apps, such as Spotify, Stitcher, and Audible, offer a huge selection and a superior audio experience when compared to the radio or CD player installed in most dashboards. How can carmakers stand out?

For one thing, they need to do more than add new features. Automakers must catch up to the ways of working that have turbo-powered the software industry: Quick learning cycles enabled by the ability to ship often; a developer ecosystem bubbling with talent powered by competition, collaboration, and diverse experiences; and absurdly powerful hardware—bits and bobs like accelerometers and gyroscopes—that enables both the everyday and enchanting.

Carmakers have begun adopting the best practices of the software industry. But there are many miles to go before their process is as open, agile, and enabled as the typical smartphone.

Fluid Renewal

Over-the-air updates (OTAs) are becoming the norm in a growing array of vehicles, which means that soon carmakers will be able to innovate as quickly as software makers do.

Software updates on our smartphones are so fluid—both free of charge and automatically downloaded—that we hardly notice the changes as they happen. This fluidity has enabled software’s flourishing: Software teams can quickly rectify mistakes, and their radical ideas can be shipped and rescinded easily, softening the risk of embarrassment and failure. Carmakers, by contrast, have historically operated on much slower development cycles (only shipping new features with new vehicles) and have been largely unable to deploy updates to cars that are already on the road. Fluid renewal will allow car software-makers to iterate as quickly as their non-auto peers. Slowly, the benefits of OTA will materialize as better software living in our car cockpits.

Out in the Wild

• Ford’s new F-150 can be updated over the air. Ford says that this won’t just be for improvements to the infotainment system; the updates will be “bumper-to-bumper.” The Verge

• HERE has introduced OTA Connect “to support over the air updates for the car industry... to keep cars securely updates over their full lifecycle.” Forbes

• “Tesla has had OTA updates for years, but big established automakers still aren't adopting them at scale. Why not? The answer is regulations, which will likely change in the near future.” The Drive

Crowd-Powered

Security concerns used to hold carmakers back from opening up their software systems to outside programmers. Many carmakers now believe the benefits outweigh the risks and are creating formal ways for the developer community to contribute to in-vehicle apps.

The delightful services on our phones are the result of the combined efforts of a global community of programmers, few of whom work for Apple or Android. Millions of people contribute to our smartphones’ software, making them better and more useful with every line of code they write. Traditionally, carmakers have feared the chaos that openness can bring, citing security concerns and proprietary brand image as reasons. A handful of brave carmakers have wised up: It was openness that enabled the rapid coming-of-age in smartphone apps, and it will be openness that accelerates quality in infotainment systems. By letting developers publish code to their cars, they hope to spark community, develop competition, and encourage a diverse group of new ideas.

Out in the Wild

• Toyota’s innovation team at Tri-Ad are working to create the most programmable vehicles in the world with its Arene platform. Tri-Ad Techblog

• Mercedes-Benz has opened APIs that let third parties develop apps for its MBUX infotainment system. Mercedes-Benz

• With carmakers still thinking under the siloes of their own companies, smartphone platforms are taking over the infotainment system with Google’s Android Automotive and Apple’s CarPlay. Cubix

Power Play

When new features like fingerprint ID or [gyrometric sensors] get built into smartphones, it’s not always clear what they’re used for. Once they’re in the phone, the innovation begins.

It doesn’t take long before the world’s app developers find novel uses for their technologies, making them indispensable in new business models. Most carmakers, however, are overly frugal with the hardware in their vehicles. With the profitability and production complexity under tight control, automotive engineers are made to justify every centimeter of wire. As power-hungry features, like autopilot and park assist, grow in popularity, cars will need more processing power, not just horsepower. With new features, and platforms open to external innovation, carmakers can finally start instigating playful experiments that explore new activities and value propositions that vehicles can support.

Out in the Wild

• “Mercedes-Benz & Nvidia are working together to develop next-generation supercomputers for cars that can support autonomous driving, over-the-air updates and much more.” The Verge

• Eventually, the essential metric for car interior experiences will be “computer per watt.” Intel Pressroom

• Tesla, it turns out, just might be a tech company—and not an automaker. Forbes

Recommendations

Make updates fun and convenient. Most cars on the road can’t benefit from fluid updates, because they aren’t yet OTA-enabled! Updates are nonetheless possible, and carmakers can add value for owners by simplifying the process. We imagine roll-through update drives at dealerships (can you smell the free hot dogs?), or updates sent via SD cards in the mail. Going to the mechanic for a repair—the most common way to upgrade your car’s software right now—is prohibitive. Get creative, carmakers, and add an element of delight to the updating process.

Open your platform to new ideas. Carmakers don’t have to create app-store equivalents in order to open their platforms to new perspectives. Hackathons, open-APIs, bringing in expert developers from other industries as advisors, and even formal partnerships with diverse app-makers can substantially increase the amount of brainpower here. Be deliberate about welcoming other ideas in, and make sure you’re representing lots of perspectives and experiences to up the ante.

Up the processing power. Even if only to kill the lag time between pressing a button and seeing the response on the screen, better hardware enables a better experience. Carmakers mustn’t nickel-and-dime the addition of new sensors, processing power, and connectivity. Every extra bit can make driving more practical and delightful.

Deconstruct the monoliths. Most cars today—including both the hardware and software—are monoliths, built as closed systems that are resistant to change. Car owners buy new smartphones every couple of years, but the computers in their cars can be over a decade old. Automakers need to architect cars to be extensible. This will make it possible for owners to invest in keeping the technology onboard up to date.

OK. Now that you’ve invested time in digesting all the information in this post, you’ll need to watch this pace for the final lap of our NXT automotive trends series.

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About the Author

  • Richard Farkas
    Richard Farkas
    SENIOR EXPERIENCE DESIGNER

    Richard is a senior experience designer in the Hong Kong team. He is an experience and innovation expert with a decade of experience delivering and managing complex solutions for multinational corporations on all major platforms. Richard believes humans have a basic need for sensible, easy-to-understand, coherent feedback for their actions. Serving that need underlines his approach to creating amazing, human-scale experiences.

  • Louise Schenk
    Louise Schenk
    EXPERIENCE CONSULTANT, RESEARCH AND INSIGHT

    Lou is the research and insights lead on EPAM’s Hong Kong team. Lou's work is founded on her skill in wading through swamps of information—from profitability and value exchange to people's daily tasks and deepest desires—looking for a thread of insight to be spun. It’s a bit chaotic in her head, with a blend of strategy, sociology, and systems design, as a result she has learned to weave simple, sensible narratives to help make sense of it all. Lou has two master's degrees in design and business management backed by more than a decade in digital design, research, and strategy.