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Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast From BlackBerry - Episode 1

How AWS is Enabling the New Era of Automotive Digital Experiences

Cars used to be about physical characteristics such how they looked and how powerful they were. But now there’s a new area that is increasingly important to buyers: The digital experience that their cars provide. This can enable innovative ways for automakers to differentiate themselves and deliver exciting features for their customers.

Welcome to the first episode of “Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast from BlackBerry.” This series will explore the possibilities created by — and technologies behind — the revolution in global transportation we are witnessing today.

In this first episode, we meet Nick Lefler, worldwide business lead, Automotive Industry Products at Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is not only the world's largest provider of cloud computing services, it is also BlackBerry’s leading partner in the BlackBerry IVY™ initiative, a key enabler for providing the underlying infrastructure for superlative digital vehicle experiences.

Click below to listen/watch the full Episode 1 podcast.
 


The Road to Digital Innovation

The road toward elevating automotive digital experiences has been a long and twisty one. It started with satellite navigation and infotainment, which is where Lefler first began his work in this area.

“I spent a lot of years at HERE Technologies," says Lefler. "Some people know them by their former name, NAVTEQ. The focus there was on improving the infotainment experience in the vehicle, the navigation system, the music, and the HVAC. That’s what a lot of consumers think about when they think about technology in their car — that dashboard experience. That's where the auto industry really started innovating in software first, making sure that the map data was up to date, that there was live traffic information coming in, or that your car could tell you the weather outside.”

However, our relationships with our smartphones fundamentally changed all that, creating new parameters for how we view interfacing with technology. Now, we want that same personalized, super-responsive, data rich relationship with our automobiles.

The challenge for carmakers today, Lefler says, is “trying to make that experience more competitive with what you get on your phone — maybe even better, with a bigger screen or better displays, and fresher data.” The fact that automotive platforms carry many times the computing power of phones — and that fast and pervasive connectivity between cars and the cloud is a huge game-changer — are among the reasons Lefler decided to join AWS, where he is now aiming to develop the foundation for vehicular digital experiences that delight the driver. “What we're doing in vehicles is trying to help the underlying architecture, the things you don't see, all the different systems that talk to each other and share data back and forth.”

A key element for this is how the myriad of each vehicle’s sensors and systems share information. “The things you're using get better when they have a better foundation under them, and the ability to get the right information and data from other vehicle computers and systems,” says Lefler. This can enable a greater range of features in the car itself. “We get to unlock all sorts of data access, and insights, and use machine learning and AI, and really cool stuff that's previously been done in the cloud. We get to do that now in cars. Users will start experiencing all sorts of improvements, and intelligence, and experiences, and personalization to the things they see in the vehicle because the underlying architecture is modernized and improved.”

Unlocking New Automotive Experiences

“Applications are trying to be smarter and more personalized in the vehicle and to take advantage of all the technology that's there,” continues Lefler. “There are more cameras in the vehicle pointing in every direction, including inside. There are sensors on the seats and the seatbelts and the doors, and there's temperature, and there's traffic and weather information coming in, so there's all this data there that could improve applications and experiences in the vehicle, but it's just difficult to use.”

AWS found that it had the expertise to integrate data and deliver new features from the combinations of sensor telemetry, but there was also a need to manage that data securely within the vehicle. “How do I fix the architecture of my vehicle so that I can still have all the hardware and all the really protected systems that are important for safety, but for the user experience and the way you interact with your car, I can update those things and change them over time?”

This is where AWS sees its partnership with BlackBerry as so important because it delivers the data required in a secure way. “We're excited about the partnership because we're customer-obsessed at Amazon. We've been solving cloud problems for our automotive customers for years, but they have expressed that there's a lot of problems in the vehicle that need to be tackled too,” says Lefler.

“We set out to solve those problems specifically and needed a partner that understood at a root level what's happening in the vehicle.” The BlackBerry® QNX® platform, with its installed base of 195 million vehicles worldwide, provided the solid base of experience that AWS required. “A lot of people don't know it, but QNX is in their vehicle doing a lot of the heavy lifting — the hard things that they don't see — and it's keeping their vehicle safe, it's keeping it on the road, it's powering things like the reversing camera or the emergency braking system. We looked for a partner and found that BlackBerry QNX understood things in the vehicle in a way that made the automakers feel safe.”

Supporting the Developer Community

In particular, BlackBerry looked like the ideal company to deliver the layer required between vehicle systems and AWS’s cloud. “We can hyperscale things across the globe for our customers,” says Lefler, “but we obviously lacked the understanding of the things happening in those vehicle systems, and so that was the perfect partnership.” The BlackBerry IVY platform BlackBerry is developing with AWS provides a virtualized layer that standardizes how data is exposed to software developers across a wide range of disparate vehicle models and types, allowing the vehicle to truly become “software-defined.”

“The challenge is that vehicles are all different, even within the same brand, from one model year to the next, or even from one trim level to the next,” says Lefler. “If I'm a developer and I want to build something for that vehicle, I've got to build it differently for each one, and suddenly, I lose economies of scale.” According to Lefler, BlackBerry IVY answers the question, "How do we take the raw information in a vehicle on one side and the developer on the other side and connect them?" BlackBerry IVY lays a foundation for supporting a vigorous developer community “by abstracting away the complexities and the uniqueness,” Lefler says.

Perhaps the most important thing about BlackBerry IVY for the automakers who implement it, Lefler says, is how it exposes functionality without taking away their ability to differentiate themselves and their products. “We're not trying to take control or ownership of the customer or the data,” says Lefler. “We're just giving you tools that you can use to create communities, attract developers and build your own network and solutions.”

BlackBerry IVY and QNX provide the solid — and safe — foundation for this. “Driving safety is Job One. Then, the safety and security of customer data is also very important. Of equal concern is privacy. If this is my vehicle, I bought it, I own the information coming from this vehicle.”

With these foundations laid, the vehicle can become a living, evolving platform for which developers can confidently provide a constant flow of new features to delight customers. In the new world of software-defined automobiles, “You expect your vehicle to improve over time,” concludes Lefler. “You expect it to be an asset that doesn't just get old from the day you drive it off the lot. If you’re an automaker, you also want to make sure that you own this special relationship with your customer. We want to help in a way that maintains that branding and that relationship and creates those customer experiences. If we're behind the scenes, behind the curtain, then that's even better.”

Listen to Episode 1 of “Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast from BlackBerry.”  
 


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Podcast Transcript

Steve Kovsky:
Hi, welcome to Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast from BlackBerry. I'm your host, Steve Kovsky. Within the series, we'll be diving into what the future of transportation just might look like. Today, I'm joined by Nick Lefler from Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Nick, I'm going to have you introduce yourself to our audience.

Nick Lefler:
Hi, Steve, thanks for having me. My name is Nick Lefler. I work for AWS on a team called Industry Products, and I'm in the Automotive group. My team looks for partnerships in Automotive, where we can solve big, challenging problems for the industry, so I'm really excited to be with you and talk about the future of Automotive today.

Steve Kovsky:
Well, Nick, I know that before AWS, you had a whole career in the automotive industry, and we want to hear more about that. We're going to get into that, but first, I want to take you even further back to your first experience behind the wheel of a car, and it was a pivotal moment in a lot of our lives. Did it change the trajectory of your life in any way?

Nick Lefler:
Yeah. You always remember your first car, and for me, it was a simple: a '92 Nissan Sentra. But when we were shopping for that car, I needed to have something that looked a little sporty, had a spoiler on it, had a little four-cylinder engine that I loved to make scream as loud as I could down the streets. And I would just play loud music and drive around, and I really enjoyed that car.

It's funny; the things I was looking for were purely aesthetic at that point in my life. It had to look cool and be within my budget, and check those two boxes, and that was about it. Man, I've recently bought another vehicle, and that was a very different decision process. Different boxes need to be checked at this point.

Steve Kovsky:
Now, let's go into the future. Let's try to look 15 years ahead. What do you think are some of the biggest changes in terms of the driving experience? Will we still even be driving ourselves? Will we be on the ground or in the air? What are the trends and changes that you think are going to occur?

Nick Lefler:
We've been talking about self-driving vehicles for quite a while now. At times, we thought they'd be here already. Those things are moving at different speeds than we expected; I think just because of the complexity there are safety needs that must be considered, and so fast-forward 15 years, we're much closer toward the self-driving vehicle. But I think what's most interesting to me in the transition from even where I've thought about vehicles over my life, is that they used to be about metal, and shape, and horsepower, and tires, and whether you had leather seats or a sunroof.

For example, my first car had the crank for the window. There were no automatic windows, and I was just messing with my kids this week and tried to get them to roll the window down, and I did that universal signal. We all do this to get someone to roll a window down, and they were like, "What is that? I don't know what that means." And so I had to explain to them, "Oh, windows used to have a crank. You had to roll them down."

Just even the way I think people are thinking about vehicles now, it's not so much about the metal or the horsepower necessarily or those features; there's so much now that matters related to the software and their digital experience in a vehicle. I think that, fast-forward 15 years, the automakers already see this and they're hiring and working on this. "How do I differentiate my car with software? How do I define my experience in the car with software, and not necessarily with hardware or which vehicle can go the fastest or be the most efficient?," and those sorts of things.

And so I think that's exciting, to see this incredible transition from how you define a vehicle, even at its core value and how people perceive the features and the way they interact with their car.

Steve Kovsky:
Yeah. It's going to be fascinating when those kids get behind the wheel of their own car. What do they value at that time? I've got three children that are all adults and driving, and two of them are driving hybrids, old hybrids. It's funny now that a hybrid can even be old, but they are, and the other has a '92 Toyota truck that has low miles and crank windows, and he says it’s fine. They're not all about the cars like we were when I was a kid, and how the cars look and all of the things that you mentioned.

Now, you’ve spent a lot of time in the auto industry. Tell us a little bit about that world, where you were, what part of the whole automotive food chain you were involved in, and how that's come full circle into what you're doing now and directing at AWS.

Nick Lefler:
I spent a lot of years at HERE Technologies. Some people know them by their former name, NAVTEQ. The focus there was really on improving what we call the infotainment experience in the vehicle - the navigation system, the music, the HVAC, and so on. That's really what a lot of consumers envision when they think about technology in their car. They think of that dashboard experience.

There are obviously lots of computers and things happening underneath that, but that's really the first experience, and I think that's where the auto industry really started innovating in software first - making sure that the map data was up-to-date, that there was live traffic information coming in, or that your car could tell you the weather outside and those sorts of things. Just trying to make that experience more competitive with what you get on your phone, maybe even better in some ways, with, for example, a bigger screen or better displays, and fresher data. And so I got to be a part of that transition and really see how some of the auto companies changed the way they even did updates to their software over the life of their car.

I think what's really cool to see now is the next step. When I came to AWS and learned that what we're doing in vehicles is really trying to help the underlying architecture - the things you don't see - all the different systems that talk to each other and share data back and forth. Maybe you don't experience them when you step in a car, but the interfaces that you are experiencing, the apps you're playing with, the things you're using, they get better when they have a better foundation under them, and they have the ability to get the right information and data from other vehicle, computers and systems.

What's really exciting about AWS and Automotive is that firstly, we're a cloud company, and we can do cool things in the cloud, but we're also getting involved in helping to tackle foundational problems in the devices - and in this case, in Automotive, the device is the car. So we get to unlock all sorts of data access and insights, and use machine learning and artificial intelligence, and really cool stuff that's previously been done in the cloud, we now get to do that in cars.

I think what'll happen is the users will start experiencing all sorts of improvements, and intelligence, and experiences, and personalization to the things they do see in the vehicle because the underlying architecture is modernized and improved.

Steve Kovsky:
There are so many parts of what you just said that I want to dig into. I think that all of us, whether we're in the industry or just observers, we're all consumers as well. We all choose our own vehicles and those for our household. Let's get into the technology a little bit, for example, what is it going to unlock for consumers? What are the kinds of experiences that would blow people's minds right now?

Nick Lefler:
Today, we look at applications in the vehicle and we compare them to what we get on our phone, and that's what we're comfortable with, and it's fresh, and it's up-to-date. I'm the same way. I get into my car, I plug my phone in, I use my music app, I use my nav app. The applications are trying to be smarter and more personalized in the vehicle and to take advantage of all the technology that's there, so there are more cameras in the vehicle pointing in every direction, including inside; there are sensors on the seats and the seat belts and the doors, and there is temperature and traffic and weather information coming in. So there's all this data there that could improve applications and experiences in the vehicle, but it's just difficult to use.

It's different across every vehicle, so if you're a developer and you want to build some cool experience into a car, you're going to have to have one for Honda and one for Ford and Toyota and BMW. Every vehicle, and even every model year, might be a different version of your application, so I think the challenge we have in order to realize that next level of applications in cars is, "How do I make things easier for the developer? How do I expose the information and the great intelligence coming from all these vehicle sensors to a developer, in a way that is the same across all vehicles or different vehicles, so that they can actually get some scale and build something that works in more than one car?"

And so you think about simple things like a music application - that would need to know all the people that are in the vehicle. What are all their music preferences? For example, I've got four people in the car that all like different styles of music. In another scenario, maybe I've got a young child in the car and I don't want to play any music with explicit lyrics; being able to add that information to an app - now, you can do things in the car that you can't do necessarily on your mobile phone.

We've talked to a lot of different companies about where they want to use data to enhance applications. There's lots of great use cases. The average driver would just be blown away if they knew how much cooler their applications could get if the application developer had access to some of the information their vehicle produces.

Steve Kovsky:
I love my 2012 car, and I love the features in it. They don't make quite that same model anymore, but it feels locked in that year. It can't escape from 2012. It can't suddenly do all of the cool things that you're talking about. That's changing in the way cars are being developed now and the cars that we're seeing come to market, and there's one particular brand that really broke this wide open, where a car is like a software platform on wheels - we're calling it a software-defined vehicle, and you can change that software. You can add new capabilities overnight that can delight customers, and make it safer and more enjoyable to be in that car. Tell us a little bit about how this is changing the mindset of car makers and how companies like BlackBerry and AWS can help them achieve this.

Nick Lefler:
I agree, there are so many dependencies on vehicle hardware. There are so many things happening there that you think, "Oh, why can't you just update it like I do my phone or my tablet?" But it's just not that simple in a car. There's safety to be considered. You can have a tablet crash on you while you're using it, and reboot it and start using it again, and it's really no big deal, but if you're driving down the road and you've got maybe a digital display on your speedometer and your instrument cluster, and then that thing shuts down for you, and you don't know where you're going, what speed you’re going, or how much gas you have left, and all of the sudden, that's a problem.

It gets even worse if you think about (future) cars that may be on autopilot or driving themselves when such a scenario happens, and so cars are always going to have a lot more testing, a lot more rigor put into the development behind releasing software.

But you're right, they've made so many improvements and have done great work separating some of the software from some of the hardware so that you can get those updates over time.

I think this is where the industry is really looking at: "How do I fix the architecture of my vehicle so that I can still have all the hardware and all the really protected systems that are important for safety - but for the user experience and the way you interact with your car, I can update those things and change them over time." It's a pretty significant challenge, and you said it, we need a software-defined vehicle. It's the buzzword we're all using, but there are probably 50 really big challenges we’ve got to solve to realize that vision, and I think that's where AWS and BlackBerry are helping, from the cloud all the way down to these sensitive vehicle systems. "How do we bring the agility there? How do we improve the flexibility, the update ability of those systems without compromising any of the safety, or the security, or even now, a big issue is the privacy?"

For example, "I want you to use my data to improve my experience and my car engagement, but I don't want you to use it for anything else, and so how do I protect that? How do I make sure that it's just used for the things I want it to?" There are a lot of big discussions happening around that right now.

Steve Kovsky:
Some of the things you've talked about are, really, so many of them underpin reasons for the partnership between BlackBerry and AWS. Both of them have to establish their brands in Automotive. They're currently not really thought of in those ways. People think that BlackBerry is like, "Well, they make my phone, don't they?" Well, bad news, we don't make your phone, but now, we help make your car, because the QNX operating system, which is a huge part of BlackBerry, is in 195 million vehicles. What do you see as the real driving forces in this partnership and the real benefits to automakers and to their customers?

Nick Lefler:
We're excited about the partnership because we're customer-obsessed at Amazon, and when we hear our customers experiencing problems, we want to go help them solve those problems. And so sure, we've been solving cloud problems for our Automotive customers for years, but they have expressed that there are a lot of problems in the vehicle that need to be tackled too, to make that data useful and even get it to the cloud for other things later.

So we set out to solve those problems specifically and needed a partner that understood at a root level what's happening in the vehicle. You mentioned QNX as an operating system. It's in 195 million cars, like you said. A lot of people don't know it, but QNX is in their vehicle doing a lot of the heavy lifting, the hard things that they don't see, and it's keeping their vehicle safe, it's keeping it on the road, it's maybe powering things like the backup camera or the emergency braking system, or those types of things that are super important. You're not going to run those on an Android operating system, or an iOS or Windows or anything, because it's just not going to be reliable enough. So we looked for a partner and found BlackBerry QNX, who understands things in the vehicle in a way that made the automakers feel safe.

For example, if you're building something for the car and you're partnering with BlackBerry QNX, then we can trust it. We know it's going to operate the way it should. We know that you're going to understand all the dependencies and requirements we have. That's where we're excited, because AWS is great at building developer communities. We're great at doing things in a way that scales.

We can hyperscale things across the globe for our customers, but we obviously lacked the understanding of the things happening in those vehicle systems, and so we felt like that was the perfect partnership. We didn't need a partner that knew the same things we knew, we needed a partner that knew different things. So we feel like between BlackBerry QNX and AWS, we have the right skills to solve this problem in a way that works for the whole industry across the globe, and not just for a few customers.

Steve Kovsky:
Well, I think there's an opportunity to really build trust among consumers and automakers through this partnership because of the very complementary strengths that these two companies bring together. Now, one of the things that you were talking about is providing a really robust ecosystem that attracts the developers, and AWS has a ton of experience in this. One focus of QNX is to put a layer of virtualization, if you will, between some of the sensors and the way that data is exposed to the developer so that they can create something that doesn't work on just one manufacturer's car, that doesn't work on just one model of one manufacturer's car, but that can work across a whole range or fleets of automotive assets that are created by different manufacturers. How important do you think that is? What are some of those key technology enablers that are occurring with BlackBerry IVY?

Nick Lefler:
Yeah. First of all, it's super important as you start thinking, "I want to build a software-defined vehicle." Well, all of a sudden, the developer becomes much more important than they are today. You start to need to think about their needs, what attracts them, what keeps them in your community. Today, I think vehicles haven't really considered developers to that degree, and so to really be successful, we need developers. We need people to build things that are innovative and new, and to get that, you need to attract them, and so you think about the largest developer communities.

You've got Apple and their App Store, and you've got Android and their app store, and so if you're a big developer, you're going to go build where you get the most bang for your buck, and you need to get scale and you need to build something, and then be able to update it and really get access to customers and to eyeballs.

With vehicles, the challenge with that is that they're all different - every vehicle, even within the same brand, like from one model year to the next, or even from one trim level even to the next. If I'm a developer and I want to build something for that vehicle, I've got to build it different for each one, and all of the sudden, I lose the scale, I lose the motivation, and so I think what's great is that AWS does build developer communities, like you mentioned, and we do it by bringing consistency and global scale to things, so that developers are like, "Hey, I know how to use this. I've done something very similar over here, and that I can just jump right in and start building and innovating."

So what you mentioned that is important, is, "How do we take the raw information in a vehicle, and the developer on the other side, and connect the two?" It's by abstracting away the complexities and the uniqueness, and that’s why we're excited about the IVY project we're working on together because it does just that. It's like plumbing that takes raw information, normalizes it and creates some consistency, and then on the other side, shares it in a way that's consistent and common across vehicle brands, and does so in a way that is very automaker-friendly.

We're not trying to take control or ownership of the customer or the data, we're just giving you tools that you can use to create these communities and attract developers and build your own network and solutions, and so we're excited to really give the platform to solve that specific problem. It's one of the many for software-defined vehicles, but one of the big ones that we got to solve first, is, "How do we make things scalable for developers so that they're actually attracted to come bring innovation to the Automotive segment?"

Steve Kovsky:
Well, I'm excited about what they will bring, because we just don't know. I'm also happy that there will be a level of technology that will know as the car is moving down the road, "Hey, the screen needs to be talking to my anti-lock braking system (ABS) right now because there's something in the road. There's an object in the road, or somebody's coming into my lane, or something's going on." That's going to trump the ecommerce transaction that's going on in the backseat, and the game that's going on in the passenger seat, and the movie that I'm watching because (in the future) I'm no longer driving my car. It's going to be the traffic cop within the car - that’s kind of how I see it, but safety really is the number one key in vehicles these days, and so that has to be the number one concern. Everything else kind of piles on top of that. Do you see things in the same way?

Nick Lefler:
Yeah. I mean, safety and security is job one, and in a vehicle, there are a lot of implications there. Then, even with our customers, our joint customers, their data, safety, and security of that data is also very important to them. Then, I think the very close - if not equal - concern from the whole world is privacy, right? If this is my vehicle, I bought it, I own the information coming from this vehicle, and so I think doing things in a certain way, understanding that this is what is needed.

If you want to innovate in this space, you have to really prioritize those things and make sure that they're at the forefront of your project, and the work that you're doing, and the rules that you're implementing, and so on fully agree with you. Safety, security, privacy - those have to be here, or we're not going to be able to innovate in this space.

Steve Kovsky:
Well, I appreciate all the time that you spent with us. If you had one closing thought for our audience, those in the industry, and hopefully some consumers that are just wondering, "What's coming next? When am I going to get the really good stuff in the car?," what would you say to them?

Nick Lefler:
I think that whether you're in the auto industry or not, you expect your vehicle to improve over time. You expect it to be an asset that doesn't just get old from the day you drive it off the lot. I think you also expect privacy and security, like we talked about, and if you're in the industry, you're an automaker, then you want to make sure that you own this special relationship with your customer. You want them to see your brand, to experience your brand in a different way. All of that's great, and then you've got these big consumer tech companies coming into the space, and AWS, and BlackBerry, and it's like, "Wait, if I partner, am I going to lose that opportunity to create that special customer relationship and maintain that control and that ownership?"

The message I want to leave with is, “No. We want to help in a way that maintains that branding and that relationship and creates those customer experiences, and if we're behind the scenes, behind the curtain, then that's even better”. This is the type of work we love to do. We love to help with undifferentiated heavy lifting, and I'm excited for our partnership because I think we're both on the same page there. We really want to tackle these problems and we want to be a really good partner in Automotive for our customers together.

Steve Kovsky:
That, folks, is the future of connected vehicles, and you heard it right from Nick Lefler, Automotive Industry Lead for AWS. Nick, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nick Lefler:
Thank you, Steve.

Steve Kovsky:
Well, that's the end of our episode for today, but if you'd like to get more information on the topics or our guest, check out BlackBerry.com/podcasts. "Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast from BlackBerry" is available wherever you get your podcasts, and don't forget to subscribe to keep up-to-date with our latest episodes.


* NOTE: Interview transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

Steve Kovsky

About Steve Kovsky

Steve Kovsky is Editorial Director at BlackBerry.