Mirrorlink 1.1 protocol brings third-party apps to in-car screens

Connected Car Consortium brings drivers more information while at the wheel - but works to limit distractions

An HTC smartphone connected to a Volkswagen in-dash display shows off the capabilities of MirrorLink 1.1 at Mobile World Congress

An HTC smartphone connected to a Volkswagen in-dash display shows off the capabilities of MirrorLink 1.1 at Mobile World Congress

Allowing drivers to access more mobile phone apps on a dashboard display while at the wheel sounds like a recipe for disaster -- but at Mobile World Congress members of the Car Connectivity Consortium showed how they plan to do this while limiting distractions with a technology called MirrorLink.

CCC's MirrorLink protocol is already supported by a number of high-end smartphones and in-car dashboard displays, or "head units." Version 1 of the protocol allowed a small number of apps pre-installed by phone vendors to show navigation information, phone dialers or audio playback controls in a simplified format on a head unit when connected via a USB cable.

With MirrorLink 1.1 the organization is giving phones the ability to "advertise" more of their apps on the in-car display, where drivers can interact with them through a touch-screen or other controls.

There are limits to which apps will be shown, though. As CCC Project Manager Ed Pichon put it, "We don't want people playing Fruit Ninja while driving."

To avoid that, developers must ask CCC to approve apps they want to appear, seeking certification in one of two categories. Apps in the "base" category are sure to appear on the in-car display, as this indicates they can be operated through the head unit, whether it allows multi-touch control, single-touch control, or only operation by one or more buttons on the dash, said Pichon. In Mercedes Benz cars, for instance, app control is restricted to a single rotary knob, he said.

The other category is "drive", which means the app may be shown while the car is in motion. Apps with neither certification will not be displayed when they might distract the driver.

With the exception of Ford, Tata and Nissan, most major auto manufacturers are members of the consortium, Pichon said. Only some Android phones support the MirrorLink protocol so far, although Nokia, Microsoft and BlackBerry are members and are working on software implementations, he said. Apple is going its own route to market with "iOS in the Car".

CCC held a developer conference in Barcelona on Tuesday, on the sidelines of Mobile World Congress, at which it introduced a fast-track program to boost the number of certified apps. Under the fast-track program it will approach app developers rather than waiting for them to apply for certification. The first to gain approval in this way are Glympse, an app for sharing location information; Coyote, for sharing information about traffic hazards and speed traps; and Parkopedia, for finding parking places.

On its stand, CCC had a variety mock-ups of in-car displays to showcase the variety of interfaces possible.

Honda is already shipping a broad range of vehicles with support for MirrorLink 1.1 in the U.S., China and Japan, said Amira Horozovic, an engineer with the company. It's not just high-end models that are compatible, she said: MirrorLink 1.1 displays can also be found in the company's smallest cars. On the CCC stand she showed how Honda drivers can control apps using the in-dash touch-screen or buttons on the steering wheel.

Over at the nearby HTC stand, Richard Pomeroy was sitting in a Volkswagen with a MirrorLink display, showing off the apps on an HTC One. Surrounded by showgoers he had no room to show how the phone would limit interaction in drive mode, but he was able to explain the advantages of a car-connected phone over a car's built-in applications.

"If you have dedicated software in your car, that's software you have until you change your car," he said. While smartphone owners typically switch phones every year or two, car owners tend to hang on to their vehicles longer. "It's easier to update the software on your phone, and it's more cost-effective to update your phone," he said.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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