Now your car is online, too: W3C to plug vehicles into the next generation of apps

The web standards body W3C has set up a group for designing web APIs to access data from on-board systems inside vehicles.

The web standards body W3C has set up a group for designing web APIs to access data from on-board systems inside vehicles.

Electronic control units inside modern cars routinely monitor everything from vehicle performance and handling to the internal temperature.

The question of how to expose this data so it can be exploited by in-car, smartphone and PC apps will be the focus of a new group set up by the web standards body W3C.

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The W3C Automotive and Web Platform Business group, announced last week, will create specifications for web APIs to access this in-vehicle data.

APIs provide a programmatic interface between different pieces of software, allowing programs to share information or functionality. A web API is an API that is called and sends out information using technologies associated with the web, typically making calls via HTTP requests and sending out data structured as JSON or XML.

By designing these web APIs the W3C group will aim to provide a standardised way for apps to connect to an onboard OS and collect information on the vehicle and its current state.

This data could include general information, such as vehicle brand and model, year, fuel type and transmission type, as well as specifics about how it is running — for example, the steering wheel position, tyre pressure, oil level, wiper position, lights, doors, windows and seating settings. It could also encompass more general data on navigation, climate control data, speed, RPMS, acceleration, gears and parking sensors.

Improving the driving experience

Developing the API to recover in-vehicle data is "the first step" towards fulfilling the group's charter to improve the driving experience through the use of web technology, said W3C spokesman Ian Jacobs.

The hope is that developers will use this data to create a new range of apps to enhance driver safety and navigation, provide maintenance information and offer better in-vehicle entertainment.

"Traditional user interfaces that require your attention are inappropriate for driving. You have to reduce cognitive load and not create distractions" — Ian Jacobs, W3C

Information from the car could be combined with data from the outside world to allow in-car systems to provide cues and warnings to drivers in a non-intrusive way, Jacobs said.

"I've heard people cite uses like fatigue detection. You have a camera detecting driver fatigue and the in-car system interacts with the driver to try to make sure they are awake," he said.

However if these apps were to run in-car, then interfaces will have to be developed that don't take the driver's attention away from the road.

"Traditional user interfaces that require your attention are inappropriate for driving. You have to reduce cognitive load and not create distractions," he said.

These in-car interfaces could include augmented reality displays that layer digital information over the windshield, like the one being tested by Daimler AG, or be non-visual, such as using steering wheel vibrations to send signals to the driver, said Jacobs.

Another potential use for this in-car data, said Jacobs, could be an app that allows a car manufacturer to track the condition of vehicles and mileage over time.

Rise of the in-car OS

Although in-car OSes are not yet commonplace they are increasingly found inside new cars. Leading the field are Microsoft, with its Windows Embedded OS that powers the Ford Sync platform as well as systems inside cars by about 15 other manufacturers, and QNX, whose OS is used by infotainment systems in Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes and Toyota vehicles.

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Open-source platforms are also being considered for car OSes: there is an Automotive Grade Linux Work Group that includes Nissan and Toyota and suppliers such as Harman, Intel and Nvidia. The non-profit industry alliance Genivi, whose members include BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan, has also been developing and pushing an open in-vehicle infotainment reference platform.

A modern car can have tens of electronic control units overseeing its various sub-systems, and Jacobs said that in-car processing is at a point where it makes sense to focus on how to better exploit on-board information.

In addition to creating the specification for the web APIs, the W3C group will also create tests to cover new specifications that will be defined and provide examples of use cases to identify what additional standards work is needed for successful automotive web deployments.

The W3C Automotive and Web Platform Business group is open for anyone to join and already has the backing of car manufacturers such as BMW, mobile operators such as Vodafone, and in-car system specialist Visteon.