A Slice of pi

As business and technology manager for Pi Technology, Julian Styles has first-hand knowledge of the telematics industry. His company is a subsidiary of Ford, but works for OEMs and suppliers as though it was independent, responding to their needs as well as those of consumers. From this, he has gained a clear idea of what constitutes good telematics design, but says it's much too early in the process to pick winners and losers.

What's the biggest problem standing in the way of telematics? It sounds like a reasonable question. But Julian Styles believes the question is impossible to answer. Yet the business and technology manager for Cambridge, England-based Pi Technology thinks he has identified some of the inhibitors. "First," he begins, "not all drivers are consumers." Some drive trucks for a living. Others rent vehicles in their destination city. "Next," he continues, "is the problem of vehicle longevity." Consumer electronics become hopelessly obsolete after three years while a car at three years old still has plenty of life in it. This affects the design and scope of the "information terminal" inside the vehicle, and whether features can be upgrade via Internet downloads. These two points alone, in his estimation, make it impossible to determine what mix of features and services will satisfy vehicle users.

"Finally," he says, "there's always going to be an application that seems to have limited appeal, but turns out to be a hot commodity." Text messaging–sending short messages from one telephone user to another–is an example he uses of this phenomenon. "Nobody predicted how popular this service would become in Europe and the U.K.," says Styles, "yet it has become a big money spinner for the service providers." Originally foreseen as a way to send brief messages to colleagues, text messaging has spawned an abbreviated language of its own as users send short e-mails over their cell phones. "It's proof that you can't predict which services are going to be popular, or how they will be used," says Styles as he completes his thought.

What about standardization? It promises to solve many of these problems by focusing the telematics industry on providing technologies and services that can be used on multiple platforms, thus making it possible to meet the majority of customer needs while leaving room for that "killer application." "At what level do you standardize, and at what level do you leave the technology open?" asks Styles. "Standards have to come," he admits, "but at this point we don't know what form they will take, or even where they will emerge."

Rather than declare defeat and go on to something else, Styles sees these unknowns as reference points on a road map to the future. The process, he believes, starts with system-level design that focuses on managing complexity. That is, understanding the electronics in the vehicle, the services and systems with which they must interact, and what provides value to the customer. "System integration will be vital at the vehicle level," says Styles, "because there's a tremendous opportunity to provide genuine value to consumers with in-vehicle electronic systems, but almost as much potential to build gadgets." Discerning which is which won't be easy without the proper tools.

Simulation is one area Styles sees as necessary for the development of nearly every aspect of the telematics market. "A virtual world where you can try out different solutions happens in every industry," he says, "and telematics is no different." Not surprisingly, Pi Technology has its own suite of software tools–known as "Black Magic"–for the development, validation, and quality certification of in-car systems. But this is only the beginning. "At the concept stage," says Styles, "simulation tools will be used to spot architectural bugs in the system, redundant information flows that waste bandwidth, and test new service applications."

Advanced simulation tools will make it possible, Styles believes, to conceptualize next-generation systems, develop their architecture and software in a virtual environment, and begin to determine both their cost and value to the consumer. "By understanding bandwidth needs, network structure, what the final product might look like to the consumer, how it functions, and its potential impact," says Styles, "companies will be able to isolate the costs associated with providing the service, and use this information to determine its ultimate value to consumers."

How consumers will interact with the in-car systems is another area of interest to Styles. Increasingly, PDAs and cell phones are becoming por-table information resources, and the information contained within can be shared with the telematics system. "A user could synchronize his car and PDA over a Bluetooth gateway," says Styles, "which would give it his latest personal information." The address book, for example, would provide names, addresses, and other contact information necessary for tasks like setting the navigation system. "The navigation system would chart your route based on you telling it that you wanted to visit a particular person in your address book," he says. "It's fairly simple to do, and a great way around the complexity of current navigation systems." Pi calls its version of this technology "Padova."

Styles feels this and other features would appeal to everyday users, but be of greater importance to business travelers, luxury vehicle buyers, and families that share vehicles. "If the PDA contained your height and weight, for example," he says, "the car could make a first attempt at setting the seat and mirrors, and scan your preferences before it set the climate control and audio system." Consumers wouldn't have to provide the same information multiple times, making it easy to move from vehicle to vehicle. For example, MP3 files from the driver's play unit could be downloaded into the audio system. In other cases, his musical preference would be scanned either to retrieve selections from a rental firm's music library, or set the stations on the satellite radio. Whether this idea is accepted by consumers may depend as much on the user interface as it does on the technology.

The vast range of potential consumers presents a huge challenge for human interface designers because each user is different in terms of taste, education level, physical coordination, and thought process. Yet each successfully use vehicles today. "People aren't trained to operate the auxiliary systems, or to drive different cars," remarks Styles, "yet the chances are at some point they'll be driving your brand of car, and judging it on how well it thinks."

Simplifying the user interface is one way to deal with driver distraction and differing skill levels. Pi's interface technology–called "Phantom"–uses a proximity sensing system based on capacitive pickup and infrared range finding to determine where the driver is reaching, then gives visual cues in a display unit within his line of sight to direct him toward the proper control. For example, if an automaker has multi-function three rotary controls, three colored circles would appear in the Phantom display once the driver placed his hand in their vicinity. A blue circle would represent the control closest to the driver's hand, red circles the other controls. When the "blue" knob was touched, the others would disappear from the display, and pictograms representing that control's different functions (e.g. play, pause, reverse, or fast forward for an audio system) would appear in or near the blue circle. "The same idea applies to a touch screen control unit," says Styles, "except that the screen would be divided into quadrants and represented by shaded or colored squares."

The graphical user interface for Phantom can take many forms, one of which is SWorD, a steering wheel rim display unit also developed by Pi, and based on its work in Formula One. It displays symbols large enough to be seen in the driver's peripheral vision. "Racing drivers get a lot of information via displays built into the steering wheel," says Styles, "which is within the their line of sight, yet disappears from view when the wheel turned at a steep angle." The latter keeps the display from distracting the driver when he should be concentrating on more important tasks.

When combined, these technologies allow drivers to scroll through complex menus via touch screen functions or soft controls without averting their attention from what's happening ahead. It also opens new vistas in interior design. "Designers and electronic engineers will be able to reduce the number of controls, put lots of different functions into the ones that remain, and locate them in the ‘uncommitted control area' between the front seats," says Styles, "because we will be able to guide the driver's hand right to the control he wants, without taking his eyes from the road."

Yet the question remains: Will the consumer respond favorably to these technologies, and what types of services and features will he want? Styles thinks it's much too early to tell. "We don't yet know what the market values, or how it will respond to the various interface ideas. Car makers offer more than one engine size or options package to buyers because the market is partitioned into different buyers with differing needs. There's no reason to expect telematics will be any different," he says. Therefore, telematics products will have to be robust, have the ability to be reconfigured and upgraded, and return value to the user. "There's space for new ideas and innovations in automotive electronics," says Styles with a hint of understatement, "which makes this a very exciting time."