June 26th, 2014

APIs in the Connected Car: APIdays San Francisco

APIdays SFToday, I’m going to share some rather opinionated thoughts about APIs and the connected car. My opinions on this subject sprang from a combination of real-world experience plus (informed) speculation and came together as I prepared a talk for APIdays San Francisco.

The connected car is widely recognized as a game changer for the automotive industry. Experts all agree that just selling cars is a thing of the past. Mobility, connectivity and in-car user-experience will be leading decision considerations for car sales. Right now, automotive manufacturers, content providers and app developers are all competing to take a leading role in the connected car space. This is a matter of survival. Winners of the competition will be richly rewarded; the losers may sink into oblivion.

Car manufacturers seem understandably determined to dominate the connected car space. But this space is inherently shared with device manufacturers, content providers and app developers. Take away any one participant and you no longer have a sustainable ecosystem. If the automotive sector is not prepared to work with and accommodate the needs of other stakeholders, then no one will win. There are three things the industry can do to make things significantly better right away.

1. Implement a Standard Hypermedia Type for Automotive APIs
Right now, every car manufacturer wants to do its own thing and sees originality as a key to differentiation. This is a fallacy. There are way too many car manufacturers for content providers and app developers to keep up with the variety. Some have suggested that all manufacturers should just deploy Android as the base OS. I personally doubt they will all be able to agree on something as fundamental as the core OS. We should shoot for something much more realistic.

This is where hypermedia comes in. The most distributed system ever built — the World Wide Web — uses a hypermedia type (HTML) as its engine. There is a great opportunity to create a hypermedia format for car APIs that will energize the space just like HTML did for the Web. I believe this format could be based on an existing, generic type such as: Uber, HAL or Siren. This would be similar to the way the Collection.Document type was created for the news media industry, based on Collection.json.

2. Adopt a Standard API Security & Identity System
The prospect of connected cars getting hacked creates enormous anxiety. But connected car security can be addressed quite simply by adopting a security framework based around compartmentalization and standards-based access control.

In this context, “compartmentalization” means that core functions of the vehicle should be highly guarded. Specifically, no third-party app should have access to core driving functions like handling and braking. Meanwhile, a standards-based access control framework like OAuth will provide secure, granular access to specific system features. This would be similar to the way mobile apps currently ask for access to other parts of the device (GPs, contacts etc.)

3. Enable App Developers
Currently, only the lucky few are able to develop apps for connected cars. Generally, these are app vendors that have formal partnerships with car manufacturers. In most cases, developers can’t even get access to API documentation without a group of lawyers signing stacks of papers. The connected car space will not develop if it remains a tightly-held, closed system. On the contrary, manufacturers must build developer communities by providing the things that developers require: documentation; self-service portals; sandboxes; SDKs etc.

But That’s Not All
These are three immediate steps that can be taken to improve the connected car space significantly but as the space develops, we will have to focus not only on immediate requirements but also on the big picture. The connected car is a special case of the Internet of Things (IoT). The context of IoT is different enough that it requires a fundamentally different approach to system design and architecture. Hopefully, I will be able to delve into this context more in future.

Another aspect of the big picture is a good deal simpler: fun. If this space is going to develop as it should, manufacturers will have to make it fun for developers to experiment with the potential of automotive connectivity.

So, have fun out there!

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