Want to Develop Apps for an Electric Car? Good Luck

They’re desirable, fun, and flashy… but the electric car still isn’t an opportunity for developers.

Tesla’s recent earnings call shows the electric car revolution is indeed underway. The company reported a $312 million profit for Q3 2018 (its most profitable quarter ever). Furthermore, CEO Elon Musk told analysts on a call that he expected the company would be profitable in Q4 and for “all quarters going forward.”

This comes as the Model 3, Tesla’s mid-class sedan, begins finding its way to more driveways. (The profitable quarter also follows several quarters of losses.) Though Musk has a rosy outlook, Tesla has one small but omnipresent issue: there’s no API for its onboard software.

Tesla continually updates its in-car firmware, so it’s entirely possible the lack of an API has something to do with owning its entire stack, especially if the firmware is still rounding into shape. Yet the most recent iteration of Tesla’s software, version 9, has retro games pre-installed; there’s clearly room here for coding innovation and creativity:

 

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In place of an official API, several ‘hacks’ exist, which do things such as check to make sure your Tesla is charging at night or automatically tweeting milestones (such as driving your first 1,000 miles)… but they’re not exactly useful. Like those official retro games, these tweaks are fun, but Tesla is failing to recognize that it’s as much a tech company as a car manufacturer, especially since its cars feature enormous dashboard screens and a high degree of online connectivity.

Nor is Tesla alone in this new paradigm. Audi’s incoming e-tron vehicles have no API. GM has a developer platform, but it has failed to advance beyond simple apps (which tell you when your car has a recall notice, for example). Toyota’s developer portal also shows very little opportunity for developers.

There’s no reason why car manufacturers should provide access at this time. Save for Tesla, none have a reliably good in-car hub that would make sense for developers to leverage. When it does happen, however, we’d expect APIs to arrive with SDKs for in-dash screen platforms.

Many consider Tesla a sort of proof-of-concept for other auto manufacturers that have been slow to adopt electric (and more tech-centric) vehicles. If that trope holds true, we should be troubled by the lack of API and SDK availability with Tesla; the industry isn’t being prodded forward. And Tesla itself should be concerned about the future; if Apple’s ‘Titan’ car project is actually the in-car platform (CarPlay on steroids) as some theorize, it will immediately absorb the mindshare and talent of a massive swarm of developers already creating for iOS and macOS.

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