Pioneer’s Ambitious Zypr Wants to be the One API to Rule Them All


The consumer electronics giant Pioneer launched its Zypr platform today. With Zypr, the company wants to offer hardware manufacturers and software developers a single, simplified way to access Internet services like Slacker, Yelp, Facebook or Accuweather. The idea behind this project is that connected devices like phones, laptops, cars and TVs take some lead time to develop, but that there is no way to predict which service users will want to use in a year or two (or which ones will still be around). With Zypr, Pioneer wants to allow developers to create “future-proof mashups.” As an additional twist, Zypr mostly focuses on voice navigation to access these services.

Why Zypr Matters

In practice, this means that a car-based interface could talk to Yelp, Google Places and OpenTable to find restaurant reviews without the user having to point the system to a specific service. Drivers could speak a command that asks for nearby restaurants with good reviews and the developers can then mash up the information they get from these services and integrate them into their devices. The users don’t need to know where exactly the information comes from (though developers could obviously expose this data if they want to) and the developers can mix and match services as they see fit. Thanks to this approach, if better services come online or one of them goes out of business, developers can seamlessly switch between providers behind the scenes without having to upgrade the firmware in a car or home audio system.

As Pioneer’s David Frerichs’ explained it to me last week, users really want a seamless experience as they switch from device to device and location to location without being locked in by a single vendor. In addition, they want their devices to still work 10 years from now, when most the current web services are likely to be quite different from today’s crop of music and social networking startups.

Zypr currently works with a limited set of third-party services, but the team aims to add more partners over time.

The voice recognition system aims to provide users a system with a very flat command structure – though it also provides developers with a built-in conversation engine for follow-up questions. In the age of Siri, it’s worth noting that this is not an artificial intelligence-based system, though, but instead uses a set of about 200 preset commands.

For Developers: Normalized API for Accessing Multiple Services and Revenue Share

Zypr offers developers a unified RESTful API that is organized by content service categories (think music, navigation, social etc.) that provides a layer between the device or app and the actual service.

The content used by the system is licensed by Zypr and developers won’t have to talk to the providers’ APIs directly. Obviously, this is not a charity project, but Zypr and Pioneer aim to share revenue with the developers. The idea here is to generate revenue through advertising from paid search, media ads, coupons and subscription services.

While the Zypr team is currently mostly working on creating a developer ecosystem around the service, the team also plans to release iOS and Android clients in the future.

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2:01 pm

Safe Driving: Why Your Next Car Will be Connected to the Cars Around it


When cars can talk to the Internet, many interesting things can happen. When they can talk to each other, though, even more possibilities open up.

Connected cars that have always-on Internet connections and are able to send and receive data as the driver moves through traffic are becoming more and more common. The next wave or car connectivity, however, could be less about the Internet and more about creating ad-hoc networks between cars and allowing them to talk to each other. Various academic and industry groups are currently working on testing these systems, which allow cars within a certain radius to alert each other of sudden stops, cars that are about to blow red lights and other hazards.

Making Car-to-Car Communication Mandatory

This isn’t just an academic question anymore, either, as Ford, for example, is already regularly demonstrating the abilities of its system to the press and as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has set a deadline for developing a standard for this kind of car-to-car connectivity. By 2013, the car industry is expected to agree on a standard for these systems and there is some talk about making them mandatory in new cars soon thereafter.

I spent some time in Dearborn, MI last month and got to take a look at Ford’s car-to-car “Intelligent Vehicles” communications system (see disclaimer below) that shows just how effective this kind of technology can be in avoiding accidents. The video below shows what this looks like in practice:

The technology allows the cars within a set radius around each other to exchange basic data like location, speed and direction of travel and more detailed information like whether somebody is accelerating, decelerating or braking and what a car’s steering angle currently is.


Coming to a Car and Intersection Near You

To make all of this a reality, though, car makers will not just have to agree on a standard for exchanging this information, but tools like this will also have to be available in enough cars to make them useful. As one of Ford’s engineers explained to me, there are already some technologies that make some of this functionality available to drivers, but they are generally based on proprietary – and hence expensive – parts. These car-to-car communication systems, on the other hand, are mostly based on off-the-shelf technology and can get their data from sensors that are already standard in most new cars anyway.

The system gets even more effective once the streets themselves also become connected. Not only could an intersection tell a driver that he is about to blow a red light, but traffic lights themselves could also be adjusted on the fly for any given traffic condition.

If the NHTSA really makes car-to-car communication mandatory, we will likely see rapid development in the deployment of these technologies, which, after all, will also make driving safer and could even speed up the arrival of self-driving cars.

What About the Police?

While thinking about this technology, I couldn’t help but also think about what this will mean for detecting speeders. Today, traffic cops still have to get out their laser or radar guns to find speeders. This new technology could make things a bit easier. Just wait for a speeding car to pass within range, get the data and pull the driver over. When cars are talking to each other, after all, they will also talk to the police cruiser that is parked next to the road. So far, I haven’t seen anybody address this issue, but it will surely become a hot topic as awareness about car-to-car communication grows.

Disclaimer: Ford covered for my travel and hotel expenses to the Forward with Ford conference in June.

6:08 pm

U.S. Transportation Secretary: “There’s Absolutely No Reason for Any Person to Download Their Facebook Into the Car”


Cars are becoming increasingly connected and there can be little doubt that this opens drivers up to all kinds of new distractions. Some new cars can now check your Facebook account and read updates out aloud. Others connect you to your personalized music stations on Pandora or let you browse through your locally stored music collection through one of the many little screens that now grace many cars instead of the traditional analog dials. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, however, thinks that all of these electronics are just too distracting and, according to the Wall Street Journal, is pressuring car manufacturers to minimize “gadgetry in new cars.” Indeed, LaHood told the Wall Street Journal that “there’s absolutely no reason for any person to download their Facebook into the car. It’s not necessary.”

While it would be easy to brand LaHood as a Luddite who doesn’t want people to “download their Facebook,” there can be little doubt that the car manufacturers haven’t yet figured out a way to smoothly integrate all of these new bells and whistles into the regular driving experience. Ford’s SYNC, for example, only allows drivers to access certain functions through voice control while the car is moving. These systems can be frustrating, however, as even the best voice recognition is still prone to making errors – which will likely distract the driver even more.

Given the long development cycles in the car industry, it will take a bit before we get advanced Internet-connected in-car infotainment systems that feel as integrated into the driving experience as today’s basic car radios. It’s not about Facebook, though.

There is no reason why a status update from Facebook that’s automatically streamed to your car should be any more distracting than listening to a morning zoo radio program. The car industry, sadly, hasn’t quite figured out how to do this, yet.

3:42 pm

Why Your Next Car Will Have an IP Address


One trend that has become very clear at this year’s CES is that the Internet is slowly making its way into our cars. Of course, you can already browse the Net and play music from Pandora through your smartphone, but the next generation of cars – and especially electric cars – are making the Internet an integral part of the car’s feature set.

Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevy and most other major car manufacturers are introducing connected cars this year. These cars will all either feature fully integrated built-in Internet access through on-board wireless modules or, as is the case with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system, use a smartphone connection to enable this functionality.

Ford’s new plug-in Focus Electric, which it officially launched at CES today, for example, features a built-in wireless connection that connects the car to the cloud and allows owners to communicate with the car from their smartphones and through a mobile-optimized website. With SYNC, MyFordTouch and AppLink, Ford will allow owners of some of its cars to run apps like Pandora and control them through the car’s built-in entertainment system and control their features by voice.

Toyota_Entune mockup

While Ford was the first company to take this technology mainstream, a number of other manufacturers are now picking up on this trend as well. Toyota’s Entune will bring music from Pandora, Internet radio courtesy of IHeartRadio, restaurant reservations from OpenTable and search and maps from Microsoft’s Bing to some of its 2012 models.

Indeed, Microsoft is a player on a lot of fronts here. Ford’s SYNC, for example, is based on Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive platform and Bing is not just coming to Toyota but also to Hyundai.

Third-party manufacturers are also getting into the game. Harman, for example, introduced a 4G wireless module for LTE networks that will allow drivers to bring the Internet to their older cars. This system will feature real-time traffic updates, games, streaming video and will give passengers access to the full Internet.

What is driving this trend?

First of all, the proliferation of smartphones has allowed us to become accustomed to having ubiquitous Internet access wherever we are. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that we expect the same from the most expensive piece of technology most of us own: our cars.

Harman's In-Car Internet System

Another factor that’s driving this trend is that – unless you are a real car enthusiast – the main differentiator between cars in the same category today is technology. Touchscreens, voice recognition, access to your Pandora stations and – on a more basic level – an easy and working system for pairing your phone with your car over Bluetooth can be powerful factors when consumers make their buying decisions.

For electric cars, having Internet access in some form is virtually a must. With their limited range (generally around 100 miles), knowing where the next charging station is can make our break your trip to the grocery store. This data is changing rapidly, however, as new stations come online almost daily, so the manufacturers need to have the ability to update these cars’ navigation databases remotely. Bringing the car in to the dealership once a month to update the GPS system isn’t exactly a practical solution.

In some ways, this is turning cars into the ultimate gadget (and is also a challenge when it comes to usability). Just look at the Focus Electric, for example, which (assuming I counted right) features 18 buttons on the steering wheel alone, has to small LCD screens right in front of the driver and a large one in the middle console.

Full Internet Access and Any App You Want in Your Car? Not Quite Happening Yet

For now, most manufacturers are not bringing the full Internet experience to the car yet and only allow a limited set of apps on their dashboards. There are good reasons for that. The car industry is highly focused on safety and a malfunctioning app that takes over your audio system, for example, and suddenly overrides your volume settings due to a software bug, plays AC/DC at full volume and startles you to the point where you have an accident is a major liability and could cost a company like GM millions.

So for now, your smartphone is your best bet for getting online in your car (while you are in the passenger seat, of course), but your next car itself could be transmitting maintenance data over the Internet while you’re driving down the highway, allowing you to open and close your doors with the help of a smartphone app (Ford and GM are introducing this for their electric cars) and sending you a text message when its battery is running low or when it notices that you forgot to plug it in over night.

FocusElectric dashboard screens

Dashboard of the Focus Electric

11:01 am

Your Car on Your Phone: Ford Connects the Focus Electric to the Cloud


With SYNC, Ford was one of the first car manufacturers to connect its cars to the Internet and brought relatively high-end technologies like voice recognition and in-car WiFi to the mass market. Now, the Michigan-based company is taking this a step further with the introduction of the MyFord Mobile app for the battery-powered plug-in Focus Electric.

Ford didn’t specify its partners yet, but this technology will be powered by an on-board wireless module that will use standard cellular technology. The data from the car will be stored on a secure server in the cloud.

The MyFord Mobile apps will be available for BlackBerry, Android and iPhone, as well as in the form of a mobile web app for HTML5-capable devices and even WAP-enabled feature phones. With this app, Focus Electric owners in the U.S. will be able to check on the status of their car from anywhere in the world and monitor and control vehicle charge levels, plan their trips and pre-heat or cool their cars before they even leave their house. The app will also allow Focus Electric owners to open and close their cars’ doors remotely. Other features include locating the car with the help of the vehicle’s built-in GPS system and controlling the car’s charging state remotely.

Ford even added some game mechanics to the app. You can win achievements for “for driving and ownership milestones that can then be posted to your Facebook or Twitter account.”

Maps from MapQuest

Ford partnered with MapQuest to provide owners with the ability to find nearby charging stations – a feature that’s a must for any electric car and which also comes standard on the electric cars from Ford’s competitors like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.

As the locations and availability of local charging stations continues to change and evolve – and given that you can’t just carry a spare battery with you if you run out of juice – it’s virtually a must for this first generation of mainstream electric cars to offer this as a standard feature.

Smarter Charging Courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft is providing Ford with the technology behind the car’s “value charging” feature, which allows owners to program their cars to charge during off-peak hours when their utility prizes are the lowest.

The App as a Key Component in Vehicle Ownership

According to Ford, this app will be a “key component in the electric vehicle ownership experience” and Focus Electric owners will find that a lot of the apps’ features are also available inside the car courtesy of a redesigned MyFord Touch interface. The mobile app will also feature the company’s SYNC Traffic, Directions and Information Service (TDI) which made its debut as a standalone iPhone app in late December.

9:01 pm