With Apps and Cars, It’s Location, Location, Location

Automotive, location-based applications will go beyond just their navigation capabilities.

By William Wong, Technical Editor

A global-positioning-system (GPS) radio is now found in most smartphones and cars, and even some smartwatches. This provides location information that’s useful for applications like navigation systems. The other thing found in these devices is a communication link to the cloud. It changes how these devices compare to the simple, portable GPS system that simply provides navigation features.

Cars and trucks are gaining more functionality when it comes to location-based applications, but smartphone apps like Waze (Fig. 1) tend to run rings around vehicles when it comes to new features. That’s changing, though, as new vehicles are released. However, concerns still remain regarding safety and staying within an automotive “walled garden.” More car navigation systems now include features like finding nearby gas stations or restaurants, but this is only the start.

Location-based apps on smartphones, such as Waze, are still superior to vehicle-navigation systems, but the gap is closing.

Having links to the cloud with platforms like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant allow users to employ natural language voice recognition to initiate actions. Including location as part of this context is important for a range of queries, from “What is the nearest gas station?” to “Who has the best barbecue near me?”

The problem with cloud-based solutions is that good connectivity is critical. Ever try to play Pokemon Go, a location-based, augmented-reality game, in an area with limited 4G support or where the GPS doesn’t work well? That turns out to be a lot of places, and the results aren’t fun. Essentially, gameplay stops. There’s nothing worse than getting “Network Error” in the middle of the game.

This lack of GPS and cellular in particular locations is one reason the most cloud-linked nav systems, like Google Maps, cache the local area and allow users to specify regions to cache for trips or area they plan on exploring. How developers handle this problem for their applications in an automotive environment will be key to their success and use.

Specialized Promos

Another aspect of location-based applications involves coupons or similar incentives that are only provided within certain locations. For example, I just subscribed to MoviePass, which lets you watch any number of movies at a local theater for $9.95 per month, excluding 3D and special viewing formats. It will work in theaters with e-tickets, but for most theaters, you need to use the supplied debit card (Fig. 2). This will be used to buy the ticket at the theater.

For a monthly $9.95 fee, MoviePass, which ties in with a smartphone navigation app, makes it possible to watch numerous movies at your local theater. The key is that your phone must be running when in proximity of the theater.

The trick is that upon selecting the movie to attend, the matching app on your smartphone must be running when you’re in proximity of the theater. The system then puts enough cash into the debit card’s account so that you can use it to buy the ticket and watch the movie. It’s a somewhat convoluted scheme that actually works, and most of the complexity is hidden from the user.

MoviePass could be tied to a car with its GPS and the movie selection being done in the parking lot. But it does highlight the problem that moving a car around to a place where GPS and cellular support is functioning and within range of the theater could be more problematic than moving your smartphone around. Of course, there are other applications where this combination of location and connectivity will be important.

Most location-based applications work with GPS, but other locality tools like access to a Wi-Fi hotspot may be sufficient depending on the application. Long-range, low-bandwidth radios like LoRaWAN could also be used to provide connectivity and general location information suitable for some applications.

Tracking and privacy concerns need to be part of this discussion. Some technology combinations allow third parties to do tracking, which may or may not be desirable. This can be with respect to a car or to a person that may be using a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth device.

Most developers will be concerned with making their application operate properly. Issues of security, privacy, and reliability are often secondary, even though their impact could render an application or service impractical or cause a company to be held liable for compromised information.

Knowing the location of a person, vehicle, or other object can make for interesting applications. Whether they will be a success and secure is another matter.

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