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Autos As Devices—Startups Spur Innovation As Automakers Take On New Role

Autos As Devices—Startups Spur Innovation As Automakers Take On New Role

Cars are becoming more like a device you might buy at a big box store. That was the blunt pronouncement by one speaker at this week’s AutoTech: Detroit trade show. Indeed components, sensors, software, voltage, user interface (UI), human-machine interface (HMI) and connectivity were the terms most tossed around during the event held in Novi, Mich., outside Detroit.

What happened to talk about horsepower, torque or fuel economy? Oh, it’s still there, but so part of the “ICE age” as Mazen Hammoud, director of motion technology strategy at Ford Motor
Co. put it during a panel discussion on electrification, referring to internal combustion engines. Yes, electrification was another one of those terms dominating the displays and discussions—engines, not so much.

As we think about what capabilities and comforts the cars and trucks we’re driving now and will be in the future will contain, it makes sense to take a deeper dive into two very different, but ultimately, related technologies—one used when the vehicle is being designed and one that keeps it current once it’s on the road.

First, forget those utilitarian displays and instrument panels that may not necessarily match the style of the rest of your vehicle—especially one that would be considered luxury.

Rightware’s Kanzi One user interface tool is aimed at solving that mismatch. As Rightware co-founder and chief strategy officer Tero Koivu explained to, Kanzi allows automakers to create human-machine interfaces and user interfaces combined with high-end graphics.

In simpler terms, “What it enables car manufacturers to do is bring their brands to the screens,” said Koivu. “It really can extend the brand. Think about center displays. They were disconnected from the rest of the car. Let’s say you had a really nice steering wheel and the center display was quite primitive. We are basically extending that experience, that brand image, that quality to displays.”

The Helsinki, Finland-based company’s Kanzi One has been used by more than 50 automotive brands including Maserati which created its first digital instrument cluster and head-up display in the Grecale compact luxury SUV using Kanzi.

Where Maserati engineers and designers previously outsourced UI to its HMI supplier, they were able to do the whole job in-house using Kanzi taking development of the instrument panel and head-up display from initial design concepts to mass-production-ready in just under two years.

Speed and ability to customize with any number of features are key as technical and design demands ramp up as well as customer expectations of greater capabilities and controls. That’s why technologies such as Kanzi become an important tool to meet those expectations.

“There are no limitations on creativity. Visions can come true. There’s a need for a larger ecosystem,” explained Koivu. “We work with over 50 partners. We make that design come true and we leverage everything else out there, like AI (artificial intelligence), cloud-based services, connection to infrastructure, what the car is sensing through the sensors, etcetera.”

But once the car or truck, packed with all that great tech is on the road, it can quickly become yesterday’s news without the ability to quickly install fixes and updates keeping them current and operating correctly.

Many of those items don’t require a trip to the service center, but are accomplished by over-the-air (OTA) updates transmitted by the automaker. Simple in theory but in reality even though they may have been produced by different suppliers they need to, in essence, work with each other.

San Jose, Calif.-based Sibros’s Deep Connected Platform makes it possible for an automaker to provide OTA software updates to all of a vehicle’s systems and getting them to work in concert. It collects event-driven data from the vehicle and transmits user-facing diagnostic commands that a service engineer could use to track down or repair a technical issue.

The ability to execute these updates without disrupting overall vehicle performance becomes even more urgent as electrified vehicles gain in popularity and more capabilities are added to advanced driver assistance systems (ADA
S) and full autonomy remains a goal.

It’s a sea change from the traditional approach by so-called legacy automakers followed when looking at updates.

“A car is a feature-intensive thing you’re building. We’re an enabler so even after the vehicle is sold to the customer we can add new features,” said Steve Schwinke, Sibros vice president of customer engagement, during a chat at the company booth on the AutoTech floor. “It’s a different mindset. I want to add a new feature, it wasn’t part of the original plan, we’ve got to add that to the new generation. That’s not the right way to think about it.”

Adoption of the Sibros platform differs between older legacy automakers and newer companies including those elsewhere in the mobility sphere according to Albert Lilly, Sibros vice president of marketing.

“I think it’s changing. Startups get it, new EVs. Bigger ones are now realizing it,” Lilly told “We’re signing up more customers. We’re now getting in every segment of mobility from scooters to tractors to earth movers to buses, seeing phenomenal interest.”

It all comes back to the fact that the way the cars and trucks and other ways we get around are being both imagined and built differently. Automakers being forced to understand they have a new place in the process as companies like Rightware and Sibros and so many others are inventing the technologies that will provide the performance, features and capabilities customers are demanding from increasingly complex cars and trucks of the present and future.

As Matt Jones, Ford director of global technology bluntly declared to AutoTech attendees, “the OEM is not at the top of the food chain.”

What do you think?

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