Wednesday, March 21, 2012

BOSCH develops Code for Converting your Car into a Smart Car

At the world's largest auto component supplier's engineering centre in Bangalore, engineers are hard at work on a software that they believe will dictate the future of the automobile industry. The engineering and electronics major Bosch developed a code with which developers can now create applications for cars which aid driving, similar to the ones that run on smartphones. 

What these engineers are doing reflects a major shift -- inspired by the success of Apple and Google - taking place in the automotive industry. The usually cagey automakers are opening up innovation platforms for third-party developers. By doing so, carmakers like General Motors and Ford are creating an app ecosystem so that buyers can tap into the computing power within a car. 

These apps help drivers cruise and navigate better, tell them about the weather and lift in-car entertainment. What's aiding the creation of this ecosystem is the amount of semiconductor embedded in a modern vehicle. With 150-200 chips in a car, lots of applications can be built -- from those that monitor weather more accurately to ones that improve mileage and provide driving assistance. Bosch's software, called Busmaster, can plug into an automobile's nervous system, the CAN bus, and receive messages from scores of electronic control units. The CAN bus -- an acronym for the controller area network bus -- transfers data between the electronic control units. 

The electronic units, in turn, control or monitor various functions like wiper blades and power windows. All a developer has to do is download the software from the Net and hook up to the automobile's on-board diagnostic port. Rajesh Puttaswamy, an engineer at Bosch, and members of the company's open source community have built an app called The Eco Buddy using Google's Android operating system. The app uses data retrieved from the car's CAN bus to analyse how good the driver is. It rates his gear shifting pattern, braking and acceleration aspects to predict how well he drove the car. 

Such applications are expected to be the norm. "This is a sign of things to come," says Sri Krishnan V, vice-president , engineering unit, Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions. "The business model in auto industry is evolving rapidly . Everybody wants to emulate what is happening in consumer electronics. The Apple ecosystem is a classic example," he added. Powerful hardware and consistent software that gives freedom to users and developers to build on, and a thriving application ecosystem around the product, has been the success mantra of companies like Apple and Google in consumer electronics. 

Recently, America's second largest automaker Ford re-defined cars as computing platforms on wheels and threw open their in-car connectivity system for developers. The company's OpenXC project, led by K Venkatesh Prasad, group and senior technical leader, Vehicle Design and Infotronics, Ford Research and Innovation, will reach out to universities in India and encourage students to develop apps for the company's models, starting with Figo in India. Third-party developers have already created interesting applications built on the OpenXC platform. 

For one, Weather Underground, an American company which provides weather data has an app to get accurate rain information. General Motors, one of the world's largest automakers, has OnStar telematics system which will be soon opened application developers. The system can integrate with smartphones and other consumer devices. In February, the company announced that the OnStar application programming interface (API) will be made available to developers who want to make mobile applications to work on their proprietary system. 

P Balendran, vice-president at General Motors India, said, "Closed innovation model for technology development can be more restrictive and more expensive in the long run. So, the choice is clear." The auto giant credits much of its recent innovations to its open research and development practices. "Conventional closed innovation models can no longer keep pace and may adversely impact competitiveness of core businesses," Balendran added. 

Chipmakers -- who make all the computing possible inside an automobile -- say that chips on cars are more powerful than the ones that go into computers. On an average, there are about 10 million lines of code in a car. Says Ganesh Guruswamy, VP and country manager, Freescale Semiconductor India, "There is more software in a car than in a computer's operating system." 

Freescale is one of the world's largest semiconductor and solutions provider to automobiles. While infotainment and navigation systems, or even wiper blades, which Ford's Venkatesh Prasad says exist on the "long tail" of the car is fast opening up to outside innovation, critical systems like the powertrain are not likely to be opened up anytime soon. However, there are groups that are already working on the car's sensitive areas like the engine control unit. 

"There is a market where people try to hack into the car to soup it up. But these chips are highly secure," says Ganesh Guruswamy adding that his company's chips are used even in F1 cars. For Freescale, which supplies chips from the Tata Nano to the BMWs, nearly $ 2 billion , or 40% of the company's total revenue, comes from automotive segment. 

Earlier this month, Intel's investment arm launched a $100 million fund called the connected car fund. In the next four to five years, this fund will invest in firms that make applications and technology for in-vehicle connectivity -- linking up devices and car's sensors. 

Intel Capital's MD Sudheer Kuppam says, "We are looking at hard-hitting innovations across the world." He, however, declined to share details. Most of the innovations come from Japan, Korea, the US and the UK. "However, companies in Asia-Pacific region have now started offering apps in car services," added Kuppam.

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