Connecting the world, one car at a time

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Google’s driverless cars have been pootling staff around for nearly five years, but the man on the street is still waiting.

What high-tech device can he or she get their hands on when it comes to making their car, and their relationship with it, more efficient?

Cars that talk to your smartphone, telling you when a tire is about to go flat, or that the windscreen wiper is running low on water, or that there are traffic jams ahead. They might seem like a world away, but they’re not.

Beep beep toot toot
Enabling a car to talk to your smartphone. (Images via Vinli)

Come August the connected car platform Vinli, created by Lebanese engineer Mark Haidar, will be officially on the market.

Like a
Chromecast for cars, the Vinli USB is plugged into a car’s on-board diagnostics (OBD) port, and using Bluetooth and 4G LTE it connects to the car’s internal electronics.

You can immediately access three things: high speed internet (they are partnering with T-Mobile for the Wifi); an app store for the car; and ‘Vinli Services’ which include accident response, roadside assistance and the mechanic in your phone, the My Service shop.

From burritos to Series A funding

Haidar, born and raised in Lebanon, was a high-achiever. He built his first tech startup at 17 and Lebanon’s first fully integrated web-based university management system by 21. He created the country’s first 3D game and built a web solution for a village called Lwaiza, which digitalized the town’s paper records and built a social network around it.

And, yes there’s more: he won a People’s Choice Award at the Lebanon Web Awards in 2005.

Nine years ago fresh as a university graduate Mark Haidar landed in the US to study for a Masters, with just $400 in his pocket.

To cover the $30,000 annual price tag of that education at the University of Detroit Mercy, Haidar got himself a job, illegally, at a gas station in one of Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods.

During the day he was at school and doing research. From 7pm to 7am every night he worked at the gas station. “I lived off 89 cents Taco Bell Cheesy Beans and Rice Burritos,” he told Wamda.

The opportunity for him to start working with cars, came when the head of the engineering department asked him to work as a teaching assistant.

Reluctant at first, as the pay wasn’t as good as the gas station, Haidar instead convinced the head they should apply for a grant to build a real-time connected car solution for the US military.

Hungry for something other than cheesy beans, and having always wanted to build a car, Haidar saw a huge opportunity.

Haidar won the grant to “put tech in cars and sensors on soldiers”, becoming the lead researcher on the project for the US army’s Tank Automotive Research Development Engineering Center (TARDEC) connected car project.

With about four hours a day in which to grab some sleep, followed then by energy drinks to keep him up, Haidar agrees it was a very tough two years, but worth it.

From there Haidar researched and published. It also helped him spot a gap in the market when it came to developing software products, “there was no one place to go to”, he said, “Not just for cars but for any type of product.”

After moving to Dallas, Texas in 2010 he cofounded Dialexa with friend and colleague Scott Harper. Since then they’ve conceptualized, designed and engineered over 40 tech products. In 2012 they established Dialexa Labs, a self-funded “venture lab” working on scalable software ideas, and providing talent, financial and tech support.

It was out of Dialexa Labs that Vinli was born, and today he is the happy recipient of $6.5 million in Series A funding led by Samsung.

Internet of Things and cars

Such a device as Vinli, which is joining the ranks of Apple’s CarPlay and Ford’s Sync3, is part of a burgeoning sector that is making use of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Simply put, IoT is the connection of billions of devices to one another, through the internet. Users can then hook in to all of that information through their smartphones.

At the start of 2015, UK-based technology research firm Gartner said IoT was going become a powerful force for business transformation and its disruptive impact would be felt across all industries and all areas of society.

Now slot this into the automotive industry, and you have connected cars.

According to the Gartner report one-in-five vehicles on the road will have some sort of wireless network connection by 2020.

Similarly, in 2013, management consulting firm Booz & Company (now Strategy&) said in their Connected Car study that the connection of passenger cars to the internet would be the next digital wave. According to their research, car manufacturers worldwide will generate $41 billion from connected safety features and safe driving components.

It’ll be big business, even in the Middle East.

The Booz & Company report estimates the MENA market will top over $2 billion by 2016 - that’s 6.1 percent of the global machine to machine (M2M) market.

All about the timing

Cars are a little late in the game when it comes to ‘connecting’ but now is the time for cars and IoT.

Haidar breaks down the slow uptake of IoT by the global automotive industry into three parts:

  1. Cars are ultimately built in the past. “A car is basically created three years before it actually hits the road, so already it’s outdated.”
  2. A car is on the road for an average of 12 years. “So you can consider that that is 12 years in which you cannot update the technology.”
  3. The industry is fragmented. “Think of over 500 different carmakers, each with their own technology, a Mercedes isn’t going have the same internal workings as a Toyota.”

But “in 2014 everything really started to converge,” says Haidar. “And everything is here now to support it.”

The epiphany

Haidar and his team saw the on-board diagnostics (OBD) portal as the answer to finding a common functionality in all cars.

The OBD is a car’s ability to communicate with an engineer about its internal workings. The portal has been a standard feature on all US-made and -sold vehicles since 1996, so today even your 1998 BMW is able to connect with your smartphone.

   Now the automotive IoT world is moving forward, and fast. Rivals to Vinli are Apple’s CarPlay, Ford’s Sync3, and Google.

By September 2014 Vinli launched at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF. The device has been available for pre-order ever since, and has even sunk in price. Their pre-ordering campaign is on 
Indiegogo.

The Middle East connection?

Industry expert Imad Atwi says that the market for the Middle East, and Gulf, could be ripe for connected cars. “But it’s a nascent sector,” says Atwi. “We have between 50 and 60 million cars on the road in the region, but less than one percent of those are connected.”

The MENA connected car industry is, at the moment, much like that of 3G 5 to 10 years ago.

“There is a complexity to the ecosystem,” Atwi tells Wamda. With multiple players - car manufacturers, telecom companies, insurance and service providers, the content service providers, plus government regulation - “You have a value chain that everyone is pushing and everyone wants a piece of the pie.”

So far, BMW formed a partnership with Saudi’s telecoms provider STC in 2011 with their “ConnectedDrive” solution, but this kind of integrated connection limits the market in the way a removeable dongle like the Vinli doesn’t.

Haidar says partnerships are to be announced soon in the Middle East, as the dongle is built to work in Europe and Africa as well as the US.

Rolling with the big boys

The Series A funding received at the start of June was led by Samsung’s Global Innovation Center, and as Haidar notes, this is the telecoms company’s first foray into the ‘in-vehicle systems’ sector.

But importantly, it also established himself firmly with the big boys of the automotive world. Joining the round was Cox Automotive, Continental ITS and the Westly Group (an early investor in Tesla). Having access to such corporations is key to Vinli’s success on the road.

Smart cars lead to smart cities

Connected cars are a critical element of the smart city as the huge volumes of potential data generated by those cars is crucial to making urban spaces ‘intelligent’.

Vinli, built as an open platform, keeps the doors open for developers to build apps using the device’s software development kits (SDK) and application program interfaces (APIs). These apps could crowdsource free parking, access information on traffic jams, or scour the internet for the closest drive-thru open at 2am - the future foundations of a smarter lifestyle.

“We’ve got over a dozen apps right now and 100 more on the way by the end of the year,” Haider said.

This also opens up the ability of the software to increase its collection of big data - something crucial to making cities ‘smart’. Apps to help you park, to know parts of a city to avoid, to see which drive-thru restaurants are open - the makings of a smarter lifestyle.

A device like Vinli, when made available in the MENA region, will be joining a fleet of other digital innovations like Masarak, Bey2ollak, Beliaa, Salamtek, as well as various taxi apps. All of which will be integrating our daily lives into the IoT.

When the Vinli and other connected devices become the norm, surprise breakdowns won’t be so surprising, traffic jams can be avoided and, all going well, long searches for  that elusive parking space will become a thing of the past.

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