The Australian Grand Prix might be a week away, but when it comes to auto tech, the big names in tech are already off and racing.
As SmartCompany reported earlier this week, Apple has officially announced its ‘smart car’ entertainment and navigation system, known as CarPlay.
The system, which will initially appear in Volvo, Ferrari and Mercedes Benz cars, will allow users to use Apple Maps for in-car navigation, along with iTunes and some third-party apps for music while driving. It is controlled either through Siri or a touch screen.
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Meanwhile, back at the CES in January, Google announced the formation of the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), which aims to get Google Android embedded in your car. Already, Google counts Audi, General Motors, Honda and Hyundai, as well as chipmaker Nvidia as allies.
Back in 2012, Google got a licence to run an experimental driverless car on the roads, and even had a demonstration where a visually impaired man ‘drove’ the contraption to a nearby Mexican restaurant.
As with smartphones – and this surprises some people – BlackBerry is one of the pioneers in the smart car sector. (Yes, they literally put their research in motion.)
Aside from smartphones with keyboards and messaging apps, the Canadian tech company makes an embedded real-time operating system called QNX Neutrino, which in turn powers a range of in-car systems.
These include hands-free systems, driver information, infotainment, telematics and advanced driver assistance functions. There’s a good chance you’ve recently driven in a car partly controlled by BlackBerry’s QNX without even knowing it.
A quick-and-dirty history of embedded chips
The advent of the smart car is a good opportunity to take a look back at what’s happening in the world of embedded computers, the internet of things, and where it’s all likely to go in the future.
Originally, all in-car systems, such as the eight-track system or the AM transistor radio – were either entirely mechanical, or were controlled with analogue electronics circuitry. Valves, capacitors and electronic circuit boards were the order of the day.
During the 1980s, some of these circuits began being replaced with computer chips and integrated circuits. Originally, these were no more powerful than a Commodore 64. (In some cases, they were literally the same processor at heart – the MOS 6510.)
These embedded chips ran special embedded operating systems – such as DR DOS, QNX, embedded Linux or Microsoft’s Windows CE – and allowed for some new functionality, such as ‘smart’ windscreen wipers, car alarms and anti-lock brakes.
These embedded processors, also known as microcontrollers, allowed for more functionality with less electrical and mechanical complexity in car parts (and appliances) at a significantly lower price point.
As the 90s and 2000s progressed, it became feasible to include more powerful embedded processors in cars parts (and appliances) at a low price point.
The smartphone revolution now means the same functionality as a two- or three-year-old smartphone – including capabilities such as Wi-Fi, 4G internet access and Bluetooth – can now be embedded in a car (or other device) for under $100. These chips, in turn, are often more powerful than the desktop PC you used a decade ago.
What this allows for is ‘smart’ devices, appliances and cars that can gather or share real-time information over the internet. This phenomenon is known as the internet of things.
It’s worth noting this same pattern – from electro-mechanical circuits, to embedded processors to smart devices – is being repeated across a range of product categories, from traffic lights and in-store point-of-sales systems to home appliances and – of course – cars.
For the tech industry, there are two big reasons why the battle for the smart car and smart device market is so important.
The first is volume. While the average consumer might only own one or two smartphones, she or he will most likely come to own quite a number of smart appliances, from smart fridges and TVs to smart cars and wearable devices.
The second, and most important, reason is that it allows the tech giants to lock consumers into their ecosystem.
After all, if all your songs and photos are stored in iCloud and you own a Volvo with Apple CarPlay, you are far more likely to choose to use an Apple iPhone or Apple iPad.
Similarly, if you own, a Samsung smart TV and air conditioner, and the app to control these appliances comes pre-installed on Samsung smartphones, you are far more likely to buy a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
This lock-in is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, for many consumers, it will make life significantly more convenient.
Meanwhile, for the likes of Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, BlackBerry, LG or Lenovo, locking consumers into their device ecosystems is potentially going to be quite lucrative.
And just like when a chequered flag waves at a grand prix, you can be certain this race is going to accelerate very quickly. The big question is, who will claim pole position?