24 September 2013

by Jerry Cuomo, IBM Fellowand Tony Stone, Partner, IBM GBS

Imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when your car will alert you to a dangerous condition a mile ahead so you can slow down pro-actively or take an alternative route.

Or sensors detect abnormal wear on your brakes and the car automatically arranges for an appointment at your repair shop and even checks the parts inventory at the shop to make sure there will be no delay in getting the brake job done.

Or a rental car recognizes you when you slip into the driver’s seat and automatically adjusts to your preferences—queuing up your iTunes playlist, adjusting the mirrors and briefing you on the to-do list from your digital calendar.

These are just a few of the scenarios that automakers and their suppliers are dreaming up as the world enters the era of the connected car—all of them enabled by next-generation cloud computing services. But these sophisticated services won’t come quickly or flourish unless the major players in the industry borrow a page from the tech industry playbook. The Internet revolution that brought Yahoo! and Google  and Facebook would not have been possible without agreement on a broad set of open standards aimed at easing the flow of communications and the sharing of data. Failure to do the same could put the brakes on the connected car.

Here’s the story of some connected-car technologies being tried out in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Automakers and tech companies have long talked about a host of new safety, convenience, maintenance and infotainment features coming to vehicles, but only recently, thanks to the arrival of a handful of technology improvements, are their promises starting to be fulfilled. We’re seeing self-parking and self-braking vehicles, cars you can start remotely with your smartphone, and apps that alert your Facebook friends when you’re running late for a party.

These new services are being made possible by advances in mobile communications, cloud computing, sensor networks and data analytics. But all of those technologies rely on the adoption of open technology standards to deliver the goods in seamless and easy to use ways.

Today, most automakers are going their own way when they choose the core technologies that enable their connected-car services. They picture their services as walled gardens where they can control every experience their customers have while traveling, from start to finish. The best analogy in tech-industry history is America Online, the first hugely successful online service, which lost momentum when the Internet came along and connected every person seamlessly to everyone else. AOL was slow to shift from its proprietary technologies to open Internet standards, and the company paid dearly for that mistake.

At IBM, we have long embraced open standards in computing, and we are every bit as committed to the concept in the connected car.  In the past three months, we announced partnerships with mobile carrier Sprint and international auto supplier Continental aimed at enabling a wide array of new applications for vehicles. In each case, we and our partners are committed to making technology choices that assure easy connectivity and sharing of data.

We conducted a smarter traffic pilot program with the Dutch city of Eindhoven where we demonstrated how cars equipped with sensors and advanced networking technologies could be used to monitor road conditions in real time. Raw data from the vehicles identified 48,000 incidents over a six-month period from 1.8 billion sensor signals. A streaming data-analysis system made it possible for the city authorities to react to hazards, accidents and traffic jams in near real time. These results could not have been achieved without our compliance with open technology standards.

One of the most promising new standards is called MQ Telemetry Transport, or MQTT for short. MQTT is a key enabler of interconnectivity between sensors and the computing systems that harvest the data from them and make sense of all that data. It makes it possible for every device on a network to communicate and share information with every other device on the network—and to do it super-efficiently. IBM scientist Andy Stanford-Clark co-invented MQTT, but IBM has led the successful effort to turn it into an open standard.

At the beginning of this essay, we laid out some scenarios of new connected-car services that could delight car owners. But the car companies, dealers and repair shops stand to reap tremendous benefits from these new technologies as well.  In addition to boosting sales by offering customers compelling apps, car companies will be able to team with business partners to jointly market additional products and services to their customers. For their part, dealers and repair shops will be able to harness a wealth of knowledge about their customers’ cars and driving habits to provide predictive maintenance. And when things go wrong, their mechanics will consult with cognitive systems—much like IBM’s Watson—to help them correctly diagnose complex problems.

Open technologies will not only hasten the pace of innovation in the world of connected vehicles, but they’ll make it possible for the entire industry to delight car owners with continuous improvements. In the future, your car will be like you iPhone or Android phone is today: Constantly updatable with the new apps of your choosing.

None of this will come easily unless the automakers, and, indeed, the entire ecosystem of auto-related companies, adopt the open technology standards that can pave the way for the connected cars of the future.