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Interview: Pom Malhotra, Senior Manager, Connected Vehicles, Audi of America


Anupam (Pom) Malhotra is a geek at heart and only wants tech toys for presents. He’s also charming and you can tell he enjoys the public part of his job as well; he loves to talk about technology in ways a normal person can understand. Pom admits to being a foodie and within Audi he is known as the Spicy Chicken Guy. When it comes to Audi connect’s Google Voice feature, the example he always gives is, “What if you’re in the mood for some spicy chicken? How the heck are you going to find that out on the POI (Point of Information) menu, but with Google Voice you can do it.” I met up with Pom at the LA Auto Show to discuss Audi’s tech strategy, lifecycle, data safety, and future services. Life is going to get a lot easier.

How does Audi define Connectivity?
We define it as computational power in the car; the bandwidth of wireless connectivity to the car, or from the car to the Cloud; the richness of the service set in terms of how intelligently it’s designed so it takes stress away from the driving experience, and then how the user interfaces are designed.

Connected culture varies per age group and segment. How do you figure out which customers want which connections?
You are hitting the nail on the head when you look at why we put the latest generation of Audi connect®, which is the 4G LTE system, into the 2014 Audi A3. Of course it will roll out to other cars as well, but the A3 is, in our minds, the vehicle that changes what people think about the A segment. We fondly describe the A3 as a baby A8. It has everything you’d expect to see in an A8 but nicely packaged in an A3 without compromises in terms of fit, finish, form, or function, anywhere. 4G LTE technology is, in this country, about two years old. Only now do you have enough LTE out there to really justify having it in even in your smartphones and cameras.

With Audi bringing this technology out when we did, we really edged the curve as it was starting. And the reason we did it in this segment isn’t just because this customer group appreciates this fact, but this customer group appreciates all the other cool features we bring with it. Google Earth and Google Street we’ve had before, but with this generation of technology they are much quicker and faster to load. Wi-Fi in the vehicle we’ve had before, but with the new technology the Wi-Fi experience is so much richer in the car because now you’re not limited to low video definition streaming. You actually can be talking about high definition streaming; video streaming and movie downloads into the vehicle, or three-dimensional games being played over Wi-Fi and the LTE connection, and it would all be a good user experience.

This generation is also the most connected that’s ever been, and probably has no concept of life without connectivity. So we cannot assume that just because somebody in this generation goes into a car, that they would accept being in a cocoon devoid of connectivity, or the kind of connectivity and access to information that they have in all other areas of their life. So we took a lot of these factors into consideration when we came up with this car, and we decided that as we evolve Audi connect®, toward the connected future we want to live in, here is where we want to start. We think the A3 is a game changer in the A segment and what customers want in this kind of vehicle. And we’ll learn from what customers do in this car as we build applications in the future.

And when you talk about “this generation,” you’re referring to X and Y, which came out of the womb with an iPhone?
Yes, our customer base tends to be 40-50 percent Gen X and Y and that’s a greater percentage of those generations than any other automaker. That influences a lot of the decisions we make about where our investments go in the future, because so much more of our customer group is younger and used to different things in their life, and very quick to adapt to technology, which may not necessarily be true for every segment, but exceptions are there. People who buy the connected options in A8s and A7s also appreciate the value this technology brings in.

Audi Q7

So how do you know which technology is appropriate for driving and which is a distraction?
There’s a science to it and above the science is an art. Audi is one of those companies that invests a lot of time and effort in building user experience—that is what we are going for and a part of that user experience is the user interface. So what we’ve tried to do is step away from thinking of interface as an end all in itself. What we think is: The user in the car has an experience and that experience is determined by how things look through the windshield; what information can I see when I see the head-up display; what’s available in my driver information center; what’s on the navigation screen, what are the different controls like? What can I control by touch? What can I control by voice? What can I control by dialing a button? A lot of these things are studied through internal studies to Audi, and we also take them out to focus groups and tests, which are probably things that other companies do as well.

And then we’ve taken a leap that’s a little different: we’ve admitted to ourselves that as we develop user interfaces, we’re not going to force one interface on a customer. What we’re going to do is develop multi modal interfaces. You might be a person who likes to enter a destination with dials and numbers, or you might prefer to do it on a touch pad, or you might want to press a button and say the address; all of those avenues are available to you. With the A3 we’ve introduced another one—you can actually take a picture and make that your destination. So if you went on vacation and took a picture of that place, you can have that image uploaded in your hard drive in your car. Next time you want to go to the same place, you can open up in the carousel of images in your car, click on that photo, and it becomes your destination. Because it’s location-based information.

Or even better. . . think of a time you may have wanted to meet up with a friend and he is sitting in a place you’re not familiar with, and he doesn’t necessarily know what the address is. How do you decide how to get there? In this case your friend can take a picture and email it to you, and you can save photo in your My Audi account as a destination. And by doing that, neither of you actually ended up knowing what the address was or giving directions, but your car took you to where you needed to go. That really simplifies life.

Will you speak to the lifecycle of technology vs. the lifecycle of car?
There are few levels of that question. When we introduced 3G in 2009, 3G had just been introduced to the world; we were at the top of the game. We now introduced 4G; 4G has just been introduced to the world, so Audi is maintaining its leadership in that space. In terms of modular design, when we introduced our 3G systems, a lot of the brains in that system were scattered among separate components so you would have voice recognition systems on separate components from satellite systems, and Wi-Fi and processing power and so on. So what we’ve done was basically take an architectural view and said: What are the systems it makes sense to consolidate because they all sort of work towards consumer electronic lifecycles and would change more rapidly? Things like voice recognition software, and modular software for the infotainment headwear itself, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite radio technology, graphics processors 4G, 3G technology, all of these things are changing much quicker than automotive systems change. So we found a way to consolidate that onto a single board, and that board plugs into the entertainment module. And as Audi grows from model year 15 to 16 and let’s say there’s a new version of the LTE standard out there at that time, we can just replace the module with the new version of the standard. This helps internally as we switch over from one model year to another.

There are a lot things being looked at in terms of how do you modularize technology so it’s not so hardware dependent, and we look at things that are more software defined, where the actual technology can shift over time depending on what you want to use it for. So these things will come and we’re getting there and you sort of have to build on what you’ve done previously to create that level of flexible architecture. At this point in time, this is probably one of the most advanced architectures in the automotive industry that’s out there right now.

What about data in relationship to privacy and security? Are those two separate things or one?
They can be separate; they can also be together in some cases. Let’s talk about them as separate things. Security in terms of access to the vehicle, access to systems inside the vehicle. There’s a lot of robustness that’s built into the electronics of the system. Primarily because we’ve actually developed a system that from the vehicle back to our back end in Germany, is literally a closed pipe. Think about it as an iPad iTunes model; it’s a closed pipe. Which basically means you can access the back end as a third party, and then we can send content to the vehicle, and then the vehicle can talk to devices in the car that are brought in, but communication into the vehicle is closed.

Through Germany?
Through Audi’s back end in Germany. When it comes to privacy, you want to be careful. If you’re requesting a service such as POI (Point of Information) search, you have to send a location; either the location of the destination or your current location or somewhere, has to be sent to a content service provider saying: I need this information for this location. Now the concern is you don’t want that service provider to match that location with you, so there are mechanisms built into the systems where the location may be passed through saying: Here’s a request for this location. But you have no idea who it’s coming from. And then the person who is transmitting the information to the individual knows the vehicle it’s going to, but they have no idea what the request was. And so you create a separation there. So you may have asked for a Google POI search for a certain POI category that you may be concerned about your privacy, but there’s no way that anybody’s going to be able to match up the request with you.

Competition between auto manufacturers. Since any technology fits in any car, do oyu find that this is a more competitive space? How do you know what other brands are doing?

There’s a fair amount o knowledge prevalent what other companies are doing when you see concept cars at auto shows they make be thinking along those lines. All car companies maintain an awareness of what other automakers are doing based on this type of avenues. At the end of the day I don’t think that it’s the best idea to always be looking at the competition to decide what you’re future direction needs to be. Because it’s really a sure shot way to fail. In this space at least, when we introduced the infotainment system, Audi Connect in the 3G space, we were the first to bring broadband into the car. Before that connectivity in the car meant literally safety and security systems that are called telematics which really accounted for a tiny amount of data going back and forth, and for the most part services that you hope you never have to use during your lifetime, like a crash notification. We introduced this product as a service we hope you use several times a day and there’s boat loads of data going back and forth from your vehicle. That required a completely new mindset in terms of how do you develop a carrier relationship, a service plan, a data plan that customers will accept, knowing fully that customers have in mind what they do with their smart phones and will challenge you if you try to bring in something in competition with that. So how do you develop and maintain your value in spite of the fact that customers have other ways of getting some of that value. User interface design in the car is a big part of that. How do you bring the information needs of the customers through interface that is designed to be safer than handling a cell phone? As we develop down this path what we’ve mapped out for ourselves is maintaining that leadership of connectivity.

What is Audi considering down the line as the next set of services?
As we grow our portfolio we’ll certainly continue to want to take the lead on infotainment and navigation services; we think that’s a core part of our value proposition. We are certainly looking at broadening our portfolio. We’ve brought web radio with the A3, access to about 7000 radio stations around the world, all through an app that runs through your phone but can be controlled by your car, so you never actually have to handle your phone. So we think there’s more in that space.

We think there’s a lot of value with services that can reach into the vehicle, access vehicle data that helps you in situations when your vehicle needs service for instance, maybe do intelligent maintenance. And we think there will be a time when over-the-air updates will be possible and that could be driven by having that connection with the vehicle. So the next leap is actually connecting the hardware with the vehicle itself and then mapping this together with what we’re doing on the piloted side, with the entertainment side and cloud-based services. That’s the other area where the amount of value has not even been tapped.

When you think about it in your own life, you’ve got an Amazon book cloud; you might even have a shopping cloud there. You have a Google calendar cloud, you might have an iTunes music cloud, and if you’re an Audi owner you might have an Audi service cloud somewhere out there. And all these pieces of information are sort of sitting out there independent of one another, but nothing combines them together. And if you could combine them together, think about the value you’d get as a customer when you personally don’t have to go here then here then here then here.

A very good example of that is, if you have a navigation service where all you do is come and sit in the car, say it’s Wednesday at 7:30 in the morning, and your car says, “Hi Melissa, hope you doing well this morning. Looks like you’re headed to work; here’s the best route for you. And by the way I’ve made sure there’s a stop near Starbucks and your Caramel Macchiato will be ready when you get there, and I’ve reserved parking at your destination.” I mean that would be great. You know it not only mapped out your route based on your destination from A to B, but it also looked at your route preferences, traffic conditions, weather conditions, construction; all of that put together and created the best option for you. That would take a lot of stress out of your life.

Sounds fantastic! We’ll look forward to that in the future, right?
We’ll look forward to offering it!

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