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A Short Drive In The Cloud

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Eight years ago, novelist Isaac Asimov's Robot series was immortalised in the futuristic movie i, Robot. What caught the viewer's attention was a car with real-time decision-making capability. That dream car has become a reality today in the form of Cloud Cars. Always connected to the Internet, these cars perform some of the most mundane functions on the one hand and some of the most outrageous functions on the other, while passengers enjoy a hassle-free ride.

As the cloud, new operating systems and cutting edge devices add a layer of intelligence to what has otherwise been an engineering-centric product, Cloud Cars promise to alter the course of the grand old global automobile industry. And Indian IT labs run by the likes of Microsoft, Bosch, Delphi and Mahindra Reva are playing a pivotal role in the transition that could even change the time-tested ecosystem of car manufacturing.

"The connected car is real; there is a shift in the 120-year DNA of the automobile industry," says Chetan Maini, director at Mahindra Reva, which has filed five patents that will use cloud- based mobility platforms for Reva cars to communicate with each other. The Cloud Car's advantage over its mechanical brethren is its ability to leverage the computing ability of the cloud, which would otherwise take hundreds of thousands of dollars to pack into the onboard computers of existing cars. "Analytics, computing and storage will be faster in the cloud," says Vishnu Bhat, vice-president and head of cloud services at Infosys. "Cloudification lets a consumer add features when he chooses and he need not pay for storage," says Sidhant Rastogi, managing consultant at Zinnov.

A Cloud Car is a cut above technology-laden Smart Cars or micro-compact cars. And it is miles ahead of telematics-laden vehicles whose big disadvantage is that they only allow the driver to communicate with and within the car or with a telecom operator through GPRS.

You would ideally like your car to self-drive, control acceleration, brakes and steering — as proposed by the likes of Google, General Motors (GM) and Ford. But that is at least half a decade — or more — away. The Cloud Car still needs to be driven. Though it could well be the stepping stone to that end.

Cloud Cars being readied for launch in 2012-13 will talk to each other and with the traffic systems, avoiding each other and congestion (Toyota Prius 2013). They will prevent collision (New Audi A8) through a mix of sensors, radars, lasers and GPS. If your car gets hacked into or suffers a virus attack, order an anti-virus patch or a software update through remote diagnostics (Tata Megapixel and Mahindra Reva).

Talking on the phone while driving may not be a crime any more, as Cloud Cars will relieve the driver of basics through lane departure alarm (BMW's iDrive) or warn about a vehicle in your blind spot (Audi A8). They will sport gesture-based controls (Ford Evos); automatic alerts to ambulance and police in the event of a crash (Chrysler 300); vehicle's service schedule and auto appointment with the service station (GM's OnStar systems); personalised offers from shops and restaurants in the vicinity of the car; auto- route navigation to the nearest fuel station using the least congested route by automatically calculating the remaining fuel or battery; and auto parking (a feature in nearly all Cloud cars).

Besides, infotainment is integral to a Cloud Car. Brace yourself for an avalanche of cloud-based infotainment such as Wi-Fi hotspots (Ford Edge 2012, Audi A6 and Lincoln MKX) for passengers; access to music or video content from a hard disk sitting at home; Internet radio, audio and video streaming (2012 Toyota Prius V, Camry, Tacoma); and, of course, every feature that apps on any connected device provide these days, such as hotel bookings and air tickets.

In some ways, web-based infotainment is already here. China's Hawtai uses a 3G module to connect with the Cloud, creates a Wi-Fi hotspot and enables audio, video streaming and storage. The product, just arrived in India, can be installed on an existing car.  Though that does not make it a true Cloud Car.

Cloud Cars of the future are raising the bar further. In January, at the International CES, the world's largest consumer technology show, Audi showcased a gesture-based dashboard that will take over the driver's role as a navigator. As we go to press, Google got official approval to run a self-driven car in the US state of Nevada. The car uses video cameras, radar sensors, lasers and an information bank collected from manually driven cars to navigate.

The timing could not be better. The decade-old 3G has deep roots in most parts of the world and broadband wireless has broken ground in the developed world. The developing world, including India, is set to embrace it by this year-end. The world's first 4G-enabled car, the Audi A7, is set to go into production in 2013.

And the first Cloud Car to be launched in India could be the Ford SUV EcoSport later this year. It will sport Ford's Sync AppLink. "(It) allows us to connect the consumer's phone to the vehicle, delivering various services to the customer," says Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader at Ford Motor Company's headquarters.

Businesses Come Calling
The Internet-enabled car market is close to $4 billion today. It will be $30 billion by 2016, notes Zinnov. But it could be larger; today's cars barely use the cloud for infotainment and GPS maps. That is a fraction of the vast opportunity.

As people spend more and more hours commuting, companies splurge on this opportunity. Just the Americans — the world's second largest auto market after China — spend more than 94 hours in their cars weekly, according to the US Department of Transportation. Carmakers such as Ford and GM believe that by 2018, 45 million of the 100 million new cars will be cloud-connected; 12 million of them in the US alone.

Carmakers have devoted billions to building Cloud Cars. But even non-carmakers are taking the opportunity seriously. Google and Microsoft are deeply involved in Cloud Car research. This year, Intel launched a $100 million fund to develop "new in-vehicle infotainment solutions, seamless mobile connectivity, compelling applications and advanced driver assistance systems". It believes cars will be among the three fastest-growing markets for connected gadgets and Internet access by 2014. "The cloud is where big data resides. And the car is where big data apps, tuned for the road and driver, will get presented," says Ford's Prasad. To top it all, the opportunity promises to unleash a new era of entrepreneurship through app developers, BPOs, analytics and mobility platform creators.

The OS War
Whether it was the PCs in the past or smartphones now, the tussle to develop the operating system (OS) for all emerging gadgets promises to be a clash of titans. Cloud Car — which is set to evolve into the fourth screen after the television, PC and the mobile — is the next battlefield. It's an all out war between Linux, Azure of Microsoft, open source platforms of Bosch and Heroku or the platform of Salesforce.

In 2011, Ford tied up with Microsoft and Bug Labs' open source XC platform to develop the Sync for the Focus, Lincoln and the Evos for car-to-car communication, voice controls and sharing of apps. Microsoft's Windows CE for Automotive is at the heart of Toyota's Entune OS used in the Lexus, while Toyota works with Salesforce to introduce the G-Book OS in the Prius to facilitate car-to-car communication, app sharing and data analytics. In 2011, Chrysler tied up with Microsoft for Uconnect in Chrysler 300. Nissan has a proprietary OS called Carwings for the Leaf. The VW group also has proprietary product Urban Intelligent Assist for the Audi A8. And group company Porsche works with Research In Motion's QNX for the Carerra, while Mercedes has proprietary MBrace2.

The differentiators, however, are hard to come by for now as the OS war has just begun. The GM Volt's OS, for instance, will collate information from the car and balance the power to acceleration against the available charge, among other things. GM's OnStar in the Cadillac also works with Delphi on advanced telematics.

But what is on offer is only going to get better. Hughes Telematics, for instance, introduced its OS in Chrysler and Mercedes in 2011 with some top-of-the-line offerings: receiving email behind the wheel, locating a family member's vehicle from home and remote-monitoring of emissions. And, customisation of music, news and traffic status for the commute.

OnStar, launched in 1996, sports ‘Automatic Crash Response', which alerts emergency services when its sensors detect a crash. GM sells this to other carmakers too. It also has the OnStar FMV (For My Vehicle). You can buy a rear-view mirror that contains an OnStar transceiver and add OnStar to any car. It also has eNav to send a route through In the works is a software that will slow down a car being chased by the police. "OnStar offers remote link, real-time diagnostics, to name a few cloud services," says Lowell Paddock, managing director of GM India. He says the Chevrolet Volt already sports the smart grid and energy management applications. Ford's information architecture is known as ‘built in, brought in, beamed in'. "‘Built in' is what we build in, ‘brought in' is what we bring in through your phones and ‘beamed in' is from the cloud," says Prasad.

Salesforce, the largest cloud firm in the world, hopes to use its Heroku and to be integrated into cars. It is working with Toyota on an initiative called Toyota Friend for global markets. Questions like "is my battery charged or is my car going to require maintenance in the next three weeks" and "does my dealer have a quiet day and will he give me a discount if I bring the car on that day" are key things the cloud can address. "That is what is going to make Toyota Friend next generation," says Peter Coffee, head of platform research at Salesforce.

"The challenge here is how do you make X car communicate with a car of a Y and Z company," says Bhat of Infosys. Expect the standards for cross-platform communication between cars to be in place by 2018, thanks to the European Union's Cooperative Vehicle Infrastructure Systems project. The GENIVI Alliance, a non-profit consortium set up in 2009 by BMW, Delphi, GM, Intel, among others, is working on an in-car infotainment platform based on Linux that will be compatible across brands.

Wherever there are OSs, apps cannot be far behind. Developers have so far focused on the low-hanging fruits — building apps for navigation, real-time news and music. Pandora and Slacker Radio are personalised web radios for cars. Stitcher Radio and iHeartRadio are other similar services. Google and Bing already offer map navigation. OpenHeart is a voice-based Twitter interface, Roximity is a startup whose app offers real-time deals to drivers from nearby retailers. Facebook has a voice-based app for cars. Microsoft, with its Windows Embedded Automotive, is working on a ‘doctor in your car' app, which allows doctors to track their patients. Ford, Microsoft, Healthrageous and BlueMetal Architects have tied up to help people monitor health while on the move. Pix Weather and RainAware give personalised weather reports. "These are all just the hors d'oeuvres. The main course is still in the making," says Ford's Prasad.

A New Wave, From India
Indian IT labs of Microsoft, Bosch, Delphi and Mercedes and software giants Infosys, Wipro, HCL Technologies and TCS are playing a critical role in the evolution of the Cloud Car. Domestic carmakers Tata Motors, Mahindra Reva, too, are readying their versions of Cloud Cars. Electric car maker Mahindra Reva is testing a fleet of 75 cars that generates data on performance, battery capacity, range and infotainment, which can then be used by the driver, the dealer, the carmaker and the tier-1 supplier for maintenance.

Passenger safety, besides infotainment, is at the heart of almost all technological development in a Cloud Car. By all accounts, in about a decade or so, it may be impossible to crash your car into a car, person or another object even if you intended to. Ford, Toyota and GM are working on concepts where the wiper can sense heavy rain and warn a car 20 km behind it to avoid that route. Their cars will sense damage to the road or the number of speed-breakers in the vicinity, advising an alternate route.

Bosch is building a prototype application on its platform to predict accidents in cities. It is also developing a car without the console, where a piece of fibre glass in front of the driver's steering wheel will be his communication device. Just swipe to move from screen to screen for information about the car and your surroundings.

THE BUSINESS: The $4 billion Internet-enabled car market is expected to grow to $30 billion by 2016

Wipro is working with tier-1 suppliers to help build Cloud Cars for several OEMs. "Content storage will be driven by the cloud, from where it can be played any time, any place, from any device," says John Slosar,  general manager of automotive electronics at Wipro. The storage capacity of the cloud and its cost efficiency will be vital to cater to high demand. Wipro is specifically working on infotainment to provide the driver with an interface as good as his phone for entertainment. Wipro's connectivity framework will use analytics to generate alerts on dangerous situations like over-speeding. The third piece is Wipro's Internet offloading solution, using wired broadband linked to Wi-Fi and Femtocell to seamlessly exit and switch to high speed 3G or 4G/Long-Term Evolution infrastructure.

Programmers at HCL labs in Noida are making an application that will analyse your daily driving habits to be shared with your insurance firm or doctor. "It is all about integrating apps and real-time analytics," says Sandeep Kishore, global head of sales and marketing at HCL Tech.

A New Ecosystem
"Tomorrow's car will be technology, powered by an engine and a shell," says Michael Boneham, president and managing director, Ford India. And that could turn the current car-manufacturing system topsy-turvy with the focus shifting from engineering to IT engineering.

Such increasing complexity and rising cost of software-based auto parts keep the Cloud Car out of reach of the common man for now. Each of the half a dozen Cloud Cars will be sold upwards of $40,000. But it is also driving new collaborative models that OEMs hope will be affordable enough in the near future. "We need to bring down costs. This will be led in developed markets, followed by emerging markets like India," says Timothy Leverton, head of advanced and product engineering, Tata Motors.

MICROSOFT: Data analytics, storage and platform-as-a-service (PaaS)
DELPHI: Integration of platforms and accessing apps through data centres
SALESFORCE: PaaS, data analytics, storage and app development
BOSCH: App development for maps, PaaS, creating Internet of things (linking objects to the Web), etc.
BUG LABS: Open source platforms for development of cloud-based apps
RIM: Cloud-based PaaS, open source platforms for app development, HTML5 app platform
INFOSYS: App development,ntegration, data analytics HCL: App development, integration and data analytics
WIPRO: Infotainment apps and integration

Carmakers know that their traditional tier-1 suppliers' strategy results in redundancies and high development costs. "Software will get more complex in cars. But it changes the business model in the auto market," says Vijay Ratnaparkhe, managing director of Robert Bosch Engineering India (RBEI). OEMs found a solution in ‘co-opetition'. They collaborate in industry consortia such as Autosar (for open architecture for engine management systems), GENIVI (infotainment systems), MOST (data streaming) and FlexRay (connectivity). At the same time, they will compete on core OSs. "The design of the cluster or console in the car can change because of the platform," says Peter Semmelhack, founder and CEO of Bug Labs. He says such technologies will bring cloud to affordable cars.

"This is seen especially in areas such as infotainment, where development costs are high," says Slosar of Wipro. The dedicated short range communication or DSRD is another wireless system being tried out for high-speed connection between cars up to a kilometre away.

Even though the geeks are immersing themselves in the challenge that is the Cloud Car, the concept raises many questions. Will cloud alliances succeed in developing compatible standards or will they spar over technicalities? Who will bear the cost of upgrading the global traffic systems? What about the security of personal, locational, entertainment or financial data spewed by such cars? Importantly, what happens in the event of a network blackout or a virus or hacker attack? "Security will be a key issue raised by regulators and insurers. The owner will have to decide how much data should be shared," says Sanjay Ravi, managing director of worldwide discrete manufacturing at Microsoft.

Every developer, carmaker and IT firm is searching for answers, but nobody is relenting in the pursuit of the Cloud Car. There is a fear, after all. Of the unknown. The GMs, Fords, Toyotas and Volkswagens of the world blinked while a nondescript firm Terrafugia from Woburn, Massachusetts, produced the other Cloud Car: the world's first production flying car — aptly named Transition. They may not want to be caught blinking again.

vishal(dot)krishna(at)abp (dot)in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-05-2012)