CES 2013: GM opens platform, invites developers to build in-car apps

As GM made apparent at CES 2013, in-car apps are going to become all the more common in the next few years.

At CES 2013, General Motors announced an app framework for in-car apps.

But the real news story unfolded over the weekend when, with much less fanfare, GM quietly began distributing its Beta Infotainment SDK at the AT&T Developers Summit in Las Vegas. GM wants to iterate its SDK design with feedback from mobile developers. To entice developers to start to build prototype apps for the SDK and provide feedback, GM offered a Chevy Volt or equivalent in cash as a prize for the best in car app developed at this weekend’s long hackathon at the AT&T Developers Summit attended by over 438 developers and designers. First impressions are GM is on the right track.

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Auto manufacturers have been searching for an infotainment solution that employs commodity consumer hardware and software and leverages an open innovation model. The auto manufacturers’ goal is to reduce the huge cost of building or contracting to have built custom infotainment and navigation systems that are soon obsoleted by consumer technology that has much more rapid innovation cycles decoupled from the auto manufacturers’ annual new model introduction cycle.

GM has approached the problem of infotainment as a frontend development challenge. Developers write apps using familiar front-end tools such as HTML5, Javascript and CSS, and they use Eclipse as a development environment. Although developing a GM infotainment app is similar to creating a dynamic webpage, its execution is sandboxed in a modified version of the Chrome web browser, limiting execution to just the GM-approved apps downloaded from GM and preventing the driver from surfing the open internet while driving.

GM has chosen the commodity ARM processor delivered as an onboard processing unit with different capabilities, different screen sizes and different touch and non-touch user interfaces (UI), depending on the product family (i.e. GM, Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac).

Dan Kinney, GM’s director of Ecosystem Engineering, did not reveal details about how the GM app store ecosystem would work or how developer revenues would be shared, but apps will be acquired by the car owner from GM’s app store named the AppShop for all product families except Cadillac, which will have its own, yet-to-be-named app store. 

Apps will be submitted to GM for approval, though it is unclear based on GM’s documentation whether the apps will be evaluated by GM for driver distraction, driver workload and safety or if the app developer will be responsible for adherence to (or perhaps liability for divergences from) the relevant guidelines and regulations of the Automotive Manufacturer’s Association and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

GM has taken a surprisingly open approach to app development. The technical documentation describes the use of a smartphone to provide HTTP and HTTPS internet connectivity. An integrated onboard telematic connection that incorporates a mobile 3G and 4G data connection would have been a poor choice. GM might have been tempted by this alternative because it could charge the car owner a monthly data plan subscription. But a custom onboard mobile data communications system would become obsolete a year or two into the 10-year useful life of the car. GM also opened its SDK to let the developer use GM API’s with any restful third-party APIs accessible over the internet. For example, an app could use the onboard GPS to find the vehicle location and use the Google Maps API to present the GPS location and best route.

The GM APIs provide the ability to programmatically lockout driver-distracting functions depending upon the car speed or the state of the transmission or emergency brake. Access to the control systems used in the operation of the car, such as the antilock braking system over the Controller Area Network (CAN), have been firewalled from the app developer, but a limited set of APIs for instrument readings over the CAN, such as oil pressure and tire pressure, have been released to gain the benefit of development experience with apps that interact with control functions. In the future, this could include diagnostic systems and performance data.

GM has opened its infotainment systems to the innovation of independent developers. It is open but at the same time potentially addresses GM’s liability for independently created applications. A big issue is the financial liability for accidents caused by drivers who have been distracted or whose workload limit exceeded by the driver’s use of an app resulted in an accident. The definition of the SDK as a front-end web development challenge and GM’s choice of development tools will leverage existing developer skills.

There are a few questions, though. First, the entire U.S. annual car production is about 8.6 million units. There will need to be a good financial model to attract developers from the hundreds of millions of mobile devices. How will GM attract talent from iOS and Android to develop GM car apps? Secondly, GM has stratified the capabilities of the infotainment systems based on brand family. For instance, according to the documentation the Cadillac family will be the only one to receive touchscreens and gestures. Touch and gestures have become the lingua franca. Because the cost of delivering a touchscreen versus one without is negligible, it might be in GM’s interest to create a distinctive, branded infotainment experience across all the product families that will create a consumer preference for GM vehicles.

These questions notwithstanding, GM has produced an innovative infotainment SDK that will advance in-car innovation throughout the automotive industry.

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