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Nordic companies drive the future of the smartcar industry

Nordic companies are pioneering the smartcar industry as businesses and consumers turn to software to improve efficiency and safety

Car makers and IT suppliers in the Nordic region are pacesetters in developing smartcars with technology set to improve fleet management and safety.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in 2015, car makers such as Ford and Mercedes stole the limelight from traditional technology giants showcasing the latest developments in smartcars and in-vehicle services. It is the start of a revolution, with analyst house Gartner estimating 250 million connected vehicles on the road by 2020.

Finnish user interface developer Rightware, founded in 2009, drastically shifted its focus from consumer electronics to the automotive industry in 2013. The company’s graphic engine now runs car user interfaces and user interface (UI) designers can use its Kanzi software to design and rapidly prototype 2D and 3D UI without writing code.

Rightware's products are set to find their way to any screen you will find on a car: From digital instrument clusters on the dashboard and "infotainment" systems, to head-up displays (HUDs), that present data without requiring users to look away.

The Kanzi digital UI design and deployment tools got their big break in the 2012 with the Audi A3 and today the technology can be found in most new Audi models. Now ten other car manufacturers are using its software to digitise their user interfaces and the software has been adopted by tier 1 and 2 suppliers.

“In the last 12 months the big change has been the move to digitisation. We started with premium European car makers and now we have more and more mid-range brands as customers,” said Jonas Geust, CEO at Rightware.

For Geust it is a sign that digitisation is moving into the mass market and is not solely for premium brands. Rightware itself estimates its technology will be found in over 20 million cars in the next few years.

Cloud-powered fleet management

Rightware is not alone. Swedish startup Automile is tapping into a different automotive trend, telematics.

In the car industry context, telematics is about making cars smarter by connecting them with wireless technology, telecommunications and online data services. Juniper Research believes the market will be worth $20bn by 2020.

Automile was founded in 2013 and claims it found an easy and low-cost way to connect vehicles to the cloud. All it uses is a tiny GPS and GSM-enabled device which plugs into a car’s on-board diagnostic port (compatible with most cars since 1996) and pairs this with Automile's accompanying cloud services, as well as mobile and desktop apps.

Launched in September 2015, it currently targets fleet management. Fleet owners can use the data it collects to plan maintenance, optimise routes and reduce risk.

“Old legacy solutions are typically products that require physical installations and modifications to the car. They are quite expensive and you have retailers and installers – a whole network of people that support the process,” explained Jens Nylander, CEO of Automile. “With Automile the approach is completely different. You can go to our website, sign-up today, get the box delivered tomorrow and install it yourself. That is a big change for this industry.”

Automile operates on a SaaS model where the device itself is free and users pay a subscription fee. According to Nylander the service is especially targeted at smaller companies (an average user has a fleet of eight vehicles), but it also counts big names such as ABB and Ricoh International among its customers.

Automile plans to enter the highly competitive consumer market later in 2015.

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Not only for startups

But it is not only newcomers shaking up the automotive industry today. Major car makers and suppliers have started to invest in digitisation and connectivity and one of them is Swedish car manufacturer Volvo.

This was demonstrated in March by its attendance at the Mobile World Congress telecoms show where the company unveiled it is piloting a cloud-based communications system for road safety. The system, based on embedded sensors and a private cloud hosted by Ericsson, enables car to car communication. A powerful example of this is when a Volvo detects slippery road conditions it can warn other Volvo drivers in the same area about the danger.

The technology is piloted this year with 1,000 cars in Sweden and Norway, where weather conditions can be suitably extreme, and the company hopes to make the system standard in the Nordics in 2016.

The Volvo pilot is part of a project with the Swedish Transport Administration and the Norwegian Public Roads Administration designed to improve road safety and winter road maintenance. One potential application is to use the real-time alerts to help authorities and road maintenance contractors to improve road maintenance.

This is just the start. At Mobile World Congress Volvo Cars group CIO Klas Bendrik told Computer Weekly that the Volvo cloud system would eventually be able to communicate with more than just cars: other clouds to link connected cars to the internet of things. 

"You could connect to traffic lights, reduce road speed limits or use connected lights to alert drivers and other road users of dangerous conditions," Bendrik explained.

New digital market

While Rightware has more years under its belt, both it and Automile benefit from being companies creating their own market: “We are in a typical situation for a market that didn’t really exist five years ago,” Geust said. 

“Major automotive suppliers originally created many in-house UI tools but are now replacing them as they have realised industrially developed tools are more efficient both in quality and cost.”

Rightware’s ambitious goal is for 30% of all cars with digital dashboards to use its technology by 2017. Its strategy to achieve this includes expanding its software stack to cover the whole software architecture of a car and investing in partnerships.

In this spirit, Rightware recently partnered with two fellow Finns, digital IT services company Siili Solutions and software developer Symbio, to develop products for the automotive industry and investigate the prospects of entering other vertical markets, such as medical equipment and industrial machinery.

Nylander at Automile also envisions an ecosystem driven by the growing amount of data produced by all connected vehicles — and sees it as the long term future of Automile.

“The car industry isn’t ready to store billions and billions of records and determine smart ways to interact with the data,” Nylander explained. “In five years I think there will be a couple of companies that have grown to a size where OEM car manufacturers are willing to use them as a source for acquiring data from cars, storing the data, processing it and allowing others to reuse the data in a safe way by providing APIs and other sources of access.”

Automotive industry transformation is just beginning and Nordic companies are leading the way.

 

 

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