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Automakers Can Learn From Computer Industry's Mistakes

Software is bringing cool new things to the auto industry, advancing such features as telematics and safety. Automakers also are trying to collaborate more on software standards, but it may not all be great news.

Software is bringing cool new things to the auto industry, advancing such features as telematics and safety. Automakers also are trying to collaborate more on software standards, but it may not all be great news.The Japanese paper Yomiuri Shimbun reported yesterday that Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and seven more automakers will work jointly with Japan's Economy, Trade, and Industry Ministry on an operating system for automotive electronics. It's great to see some collaboration happening, should the report turn out to be true. (An announcement will be made this week, according to the paper.)

But hold on. Remember that Toyota, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and many others are members of a consortium called AutoSar (Automotive Open System Architecture) Alliance that's been working on a standards-based architecture to allow easier upgrades and integration of automotive software. So if the Japanese news report is true, where does this leave Toyota's work on AutoSar?

Analyst David Alexander of ABI Research has his theories. "I suspect Japanese manufacturers are not happy with the progress that's being made at AutoSar," he tells me. "I would interpret this [anticipated] announcement as the Japanese can't wait any longer for the consortium."

Sigh. Automakers should stop and take a 20-year look back in the computer industry: gleeful announcements about standards consortiums; years that go on without any real progress; companies that claim to still be in a consortium when they're really off doing their own thing; consortiums that fizzle and become meaningless.

Again, software is a great new development for the industry. Consider this: many Ford 2008 models will offer hands-free cell phone messaging communications and a media player using software based on Microsoft Windows CE. The Ford offering, called Sync, is designed to get around what's been among the biggest frustrations for consumers: Bluetooth-based in-car communication consoles that only work with specific brands or models of devices, or are rapidly outdated. Microsoft says Sync will support almost any Bluetooth-capable device or music player, including both Apple's iPod and its own Zune. A driver will be able to talk on the phone through the car's audio system, listen to their incoming text messages delivered by a computerized voice system, and tell their music player to put on specific songs and artists.

But what's it going to take to get automakers all working on the same software standards? Just think how much more quickly such things as safety features can advance with effective and speedy collaboration. Take a good look at the computer industry, automakers, and learn from its mistakes.

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