Last year, Japanese car manufacturer Toyota was forced to recall around 40,000 automobiles after a software glitch affected brake performance.
As well as a tough lesson in the importance of software testing for Toyota, it was a reflection of the degree to which cars rely on code these days. According to analyst company Frost & Sullivan, cars running between 250 million and 300 million lines of code are not far off.
To date, that software has remained hidden from the driver. But now one car manufacturer is advertising its latest range as a platform for applications. French company Renault has embedded an iPad-like touch interface into the dashboard of some of its latest models, and has built an Apple-like application store that allows third-party developers to build applications for its cars.
The app store, named the ‘R Store’, will launch with 50 stock apps developed by Renault itself, including one that allows the driver to monitor his or her driving performance.
Like any technology platform vendor, Renault’s challenge now is to attract developers to build more applications. So far, Renault is the first car manufacturer to launch such a product, but chief digital officer Patrick Hoffstetter believes that the automobile industry could one day develop a common operating system for in-car apps. “The car industry is where the mobile industry was ten years ago,” Hoffstetter told The Wall Street Journal. “In the next three to four years, there will be talks together about developing.”
This is not the first incidence of the ‘consumerisation’ of in-car software, however. In May, Toyota teamed up with on- demand CRM supplier Salesforce.com to announce ‘Toyota Friend’, a private social network for Toyota drivers. Due for launch next year, the network will allow cars to ‘communicate’ with their owner, for example when they need servicing or their battery is running low.
Akio Toyoda, president of the Toyota Motor Corporation, said at the time that cars need to evolve in step with the social networking services that are “transforming human interaction and modes of communication”.
And while it sounds like something of a gimmick, there is in fact a sound business driver for Toyota Friend. Like most car- makers, Toyota sells its products through third-party resellers, which places a degree of separation between itself and its customers. Consumer technology like Toyota Friend will allow it to identify customer service issues, such as the brake system glitch, faster in future.