New Tech Incubator Focuses on Car-Based Apps

Tech entrepreneur Jim Disanto sees the automobile as the next great platform for connectivity. “There are a more than a billion cars in the world,” he said. “Every automotive OEM and Tier 1 supplier will tell you that within three years, every car will need connected systems, or you’re not going to be able to sell it.” That, Disanto believes, will spawn a new generation of app developers offering Internet-enabled enhancements to the driving experience.

However, as large as that opportunity is, the obstacles facing entrepreneurs wanting to develop apps for cars are bigger still.

It’s the chasm between the opportunity and its realization that led Disanto to start what he believes is the first Silicon Valley incubator to specifically focus on connected car technology. Disanto first caught a glimpse of the opportunity for web-enabled cars soon after selling a previous company, KonaWare to a China’s Yamei Electronics in 2008. KonaWare provided remote logistics to transportation companies, but the wave of smart phone applications had not yet reached critical mass.

Four years later, everybody and their mother have a smart phone. We all step into our cars, and wonder why we can’t bring those apps along for the ride. “A new generation of car buyers aren’t interested in the mechanics of the car. They are much more interested in the electronic stuff onboard,” Disanto said. “Before, the car was a transportation system. Now, it’s an extension of your digital life.”

Disanto’s incubator, Transportation Technology Ventures, consists of two partners, six advisors, and an office in Palo Alto. The group, which serves as an angel investor fund, is now “circling up entrepreneurs in the space,” said Disanto.

But those fledgling entrepreneurs face the following serious obstacles.

Nobody Knows Which Apps Make The Most Sense

Sure, you want dashboard navigation integrated with things like Yelp or Open Table. Or you want to listen to Internet radio, like Pandora and Spotify. But beyond that, it’s a mystery as to which apps will become popular, and what will even make sense while driving.

The grand vision is to eventually have hundreds or even thousands of downloadable car-related apps. But at this stage, the only ones out there are carried over from the mobile phone, rather than specifically created for an automotive environment.

No Centralized App Store

There are about 20 major automotive companies selling vehicles in the United States, and around 70 around the world, according to Disanto. Because each car company has to worry about potential lawsuits from a rogue app, or one that distracts too much. So each OEM will want to test and bless every app, and control its own app store where drivers will download right to the car.

Apple or Google app stores probably don’t make sense, unless you can easily elevate the car-related apps above the clutter. Expect confusion when there are as many app stores as there are models on the road.

Lack Of Standards And Qualified Developers

The automotive industry has not yet established app standards for hardware, software, interfaces, and communications protocols. Who wants to spend countless hours and dollars developing a car-based app, when you don’t know if it will meet a standard that hasn’t been finalized yet—or even discussed?

The Department of Transportation will throw out its own roadblocks. A game app for a smart phone is child’s play, compared to developing functionality that has to interact with a car’s computer network, widely divergent dashboard configurations, touch screen interaction, steering wheel controls, and potential voice recognition and heads-up displays projected on to the windshield.

And we’re not even talking about vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-road communications that’s right around the corner. These technologies are not taught in most computer science classes.

All of these complications add up to time, money, and headaches. And it creates a scenario where innovation is stifled because the best ideas never get off the ground. But this won’t stop enterprising tech innovators from coming up with ideas, and seeking money and logistics to support them.

“There’s a massive gap between the seed stage of a new company focusing on transportation, and the institutional financing route,” said Disanto. “A lot of things need to get done in the gap.” Disanto intends to fill that gap.