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It's Time to Take Car Software to the Shop

Tesla Model S Interior

Courtesy Tesla

Tesla Model S Interior

Over the past few months I’ve been conducting some semiformal “research” on the automotive sector by talking to salespeople hawking very expensive luxury cars, as well as a few somewhat depressing midpriced sedans. Their selling points included buttery leather, better gas mileage, and Dukes of Hazzard-style sealed doors. (OK, no one actually offered the doors.) But I’m more interested in trying to figure out how future-proof these new car models would be. A normal, logical person would probably be thinking mainly about tire wear, gas mileage, and overall reliability. My only concern is the software that runs inside.

Sadly, the software in most cars isn’t terribly inspiring. In-vehicle-infotainment (IVI) still tends toward arcane interfaces and radio content. Carmakers don’t mind if you connect your smartphone, because it forces you to pay for an upgraded IVI system that is just an expensive interface for a USB cable. Many automotive companies already use the same chips, operating systems, and programming languages inside their vehicles that you find on a computer or smartphone. They just fail to take advantage of the technology.

The auto industry has long developed modular platforms that might provide consistency across models. Yet the platform approach doesn’t seem to be top of mind when it comes to IVI systems, and many cars still feel like glamorized calculators instead of the computers on wheels they really are.

If you want to get bummed out about what your car has to offer, take a look at the 17-inch, in-dash touchscreen in a Tesla Model S sedan. The electric-car maker has shown that a giant flat-screen display with beveled icons and an interactive image of their cars’ internals causes drivers’ eyes to light up and drool to form at the corners of the mouth. It’s an immediate upgrade to the car’s overall appeal.

But the current platforms have resulted in a marketplace full of dated software. Automakers need to start thinking more like smartphone makers and other consumer electronics companies to remedy that. They must appeal to a broader developer base and consolidate development techniques that can be reused across more vehicle lines, just as they’ve done in the assembly process.

One strategy might be to rip a page out of Apple’s playbook and develop something akin to the App Store, providing safe, secure distribution of applications. Then they need to borrow from Google’s Android and offer a development environment that has the potential for both consistency and differentiation. Applications need to be updated on a regular basis to introduce new features as well—maybe not as frequently as smartphones, but certainly once a year at the very least. This is a dramatic but necessary shift in an industry that hasn’t yet made much progress on becoming being truly innovative in this area.

Rosenberg is the technology portfolio head for the Invention Development Fund at Intellectual Ventures. His Twitter handle is @dr138.

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