An ‘app store’ for automotive services

Smart phones and tablets, apps from the App Store, Google services from the cloud — the consumer’s lifestyle has radically altered in recent years. But how do you introduce a digital lifestyle to the automobile? New developments in connectivity, such as apps for the automobile or the auto cloud, are only imaginable if telematics systems can dynamically load parts of code or entire applications from the Internet or cloud. So what it takes are open developer platforms that resourceful third-party manufacturers can easily fill with interesting services such as the ATOP telematics platform.

Automotive OEMs are dealing with the issue of connectivity and have to contend with problems such as: how do you link a car to the Internet? How can Internet-enabled services be linked to the automobile? How do you introduce a digital lifestyle, of the kind just about anyone can experience at home to the automobile? Or how can I configure my car from my smart phone or add and activate new functions?

Possibilities such as these have, in fact, been implemented in premium-class vehicles. Soon they are going to be made available to drivers of middle-of-the-range vehicles and small-size cars as well, but before things get this far, a new approach is needed.

The traditional way of integrating systems in an automobile seems doomed to failure when confronted with the above questions: Embedded programming and consequently the tight “wiring” between hardware and software, plus “hard” programming in C make any changes elaborate and costly. Unlike on the Internet, it takes a few years and not months between starting to plan a new digital service and actually delivering it. So the automobile industry is threatened with lagging even further behind the spirit of our digital age.

The auto cloud?

Well, one possible answer is to take up ideas from other markets, such as IT and the Internet sector. These have to be fused as intelligently as possible with the requirements of the automobile industry, which in turn stem from the requirements of their customers. A major subject here is cloud computing. Written off as mere hype not many years back, today an increasing number of attractive services are appearing in the cloud.

Google’s services illustrate the principle behind their success. The user’s terminal features a web browser, while the programs themselves are to be found in the cloud, hosted on the server farms of the Internet giants. Write a text with Google Docs and you no longer have to install a weighty Microsoft package on your computer — you can do it from any Internet-capable device of your choice.

The advantage of doing this is that new services and updates are easily brought to the customer because they don’t need to change their basic configuration; their applications and documents are preserved even if they fully overhaul their hardware.

The automobile market is showing first signs of adopting this flexible integration model. Radio direction finder services are now brought to the automobile over the Internet and no longer on its antenna, as once was the case.

Competing services

A cloud model for automobiles is particularly interesting for manufacturers and workshops, because they can then offer new services setting them apart from the competition. Just the NFC key from BMW shows how attractive more connectivity can be — in this way, BMW offers services like contactless payment, e-ticketing, the display of vehicle data, and personalisation.

Through the cloud, manufacturers and garages could offer their customers services that are more wide-ranging and data-intensive. These could start from relatively simple information, such as planning the next appointment for an inspection, and go on to smarter applications with remote diagnostics functionality or remote management.

Open industry standards

The on-board telematics unit in the vehicle plays an important role when it comes to taking an alternative approach. As a communication unit for online services or telematics services, it is in effect for the automobile what a web browser is for Google or the iPhone for Apple: ATOP is the central platform for information in the automobile and out of it.

Traditionally, today”s on-board unit is composed of a C-programmed microcontroller with connected GSM and GPS modules on which individual applications are programmed that in turn produce certain fixed services. Then the whole application is integrated into the automobile. Then the whole application is integrated into the automobile which could take three years from planning through to delivery of the automobile to the customer.

Let’s compare things to the Internet again. What makes browsers so adaptable, given the fast developments on the Web? The answer is that they work on the basis of quasi-industry standards such as Java Script and Java Engine, and are consequently open and for the most part independent of hardware for all applications developed with them, no matter who produces them. So you also find a large community of programmers engaged in very different applications.

Other dynamic markets turn to this quasi-standard. Google smart phones work with the free, Open Source operating system known as Android, which also sets up on Java. Home-automation or smart-meter applications use the hardware-independent OSGi platform based on Java Virtual Machine.

The OSGi framework is an environment for executing services that can be loaded online. OSGi standardly describes the mechanisms by which the relationships between individual services are resolved and digitally signed program parts can be loaded on demand over the Internet, another network, or from a memory. The result is a software structure that can be installed on an embedded system over the Internet/intranet.

Whether Internet or smart reader, the principle remains the same; you develop the execution platform, making it as open as possible, based on industry standards such as Java, OSGi, or Java Engine. This way you ensure that as many different applications and services as possible can be created — including future ones.

If the automotive industry wants to match the dynamic pace of the other markets, it needs an onboard unit constructed using the same principles.

Java and OSGi are especially suitable because they require little in the way of hardware resources and enable development abstracted from the hardware. That benefits the smaller devices on which the market will more likely start up — with the option of using Java again when the devices are fitted with more Mips and memory, even with the possibility of using Java while running Linux.

ATOP communication platform

The Automotive Telematics On-board-unit Platform, or ATOP, is an example of a standardised platform. It is clearly split into what are effectively two independent regions. One is responsible for reliable real-time communication between the automotive electronics and telematics unit and serves the interfaces typical in such a case.

Isolated in its logic from this is the other region offering, for instance, everything needed to implement innovative telematics services — GPS, GSM, NFC, and RF components on the one hand, or a development framework based on JVA and OSGi. Both regions are joined in ATOP as a multiprocessor setup and are ready integrated.

While other ways can be conceived of implementing digital services in an automobile, there are a number of good reasons in favour of an on-board unit.

Sooner or later, telematics services will be part of the standard outfit of an automobile. OEMs can reckon on having to fit these systems in one form or another so why not do so through a platform with enough space and possibilities for extra innovative services?

Whether they operate a closed business model or a more open one the onboard unit as a standards-based developer platform on Java and OSGi provides a framework for both. ATOP even integrates a hardware-based authentication mechanism, needed in a closed business model and to authenticate Java bundles, required to validate applications in automobiles.

The way to the box

The question remains as to how the services can best get from the provider to the box. To enable the App Store service model for the automobile to work correctly, the solution should be as simple and fast.

This is where Java offers much more flexibility. Together with an OSGi framework, you can update information or load it in standard fashion with Java applications or components without having to take on the overall system. That means less expense and less data traffic.

Those creative forces willing to participate in the development process are an important source of motivation when it comes to creating a rich range of services. Java presents a major advantage here, too, because it makes it possible to develop services independently and abstracted from the fundamental hardware.

This is where special simulators can help, such as the J2ME platform for cell-phone development. The environment for these simulators is OSGi; it saves developers the work produced by hardware integration in traditional automotive development. In fact, developers no longer need to know their specifications. Instead they can concentrate fully on developing their own app.

In this way, OEMs gain the support of developers who are not as “close” to the hardware. That can be of decisive importance for the success of a telematics apps shop, as developers can focus entirely on the functionality of their service, for one thing.


Today your personal lifestyle is increasingly molded by the pace of developments in digital technologies and is characterised by speed, flexibility, and networking — which are less characteristic of traditional automotive developments.

This deficit can be balanced by open platforms based on standards. The telematics box is especially suitable for this role for a number of reasons. For one thing, OEMs must provide solutions for internationally demanded systems like eCall in future. And in ATOP a platform is already in place that, enabled by an independent Java framework, is ready to face any upcoming challenges.

Dirk Reimer is Marketing & Business Development Director at NXP Semiconductors


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