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The Web wants a seat in the car of your future

Reaching beyond laptops, phones and TVs, the World Wide Web Consortium is standardizing technology so browser-based apps can control your car.

The W3C has launched its Automotive Working Group to hammer out Web standards that cars can use for tasks like interfaces for controlling car entertainment systems.
The W3C has launched its Automotive Working Group to hammer out Web standards that cars can use for tasks like interfaces for controlling car entertainment systems. W3C

Twenty-five years ago, the World Wide Web came to desktop computers. Next came laptops, smartphones, tablets, and TVs. Soon it could be coming to cars, too.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on Tuesday announced the launch of its Automotive Working Group to create standards for bringing the Web and Web apps to the auto industry. That could mean, for example, that a Web-based app running on your car's built-in computer or your Bluetooth-connected phone could find out your car's speed or let you change the air-conditioning temperature.

The move reflects new industrial realities as the automotive and computing businesses collide. Computing players are eager to expand into a new domain where people spend hours a week, and carmakers are eager to infuse their products with electronic smarts.

More computing technology in cars is inevitable, but how it happens is not, and the Web is just one contender.

The Web has spread far and wide, growing from a foundation for sharing information into a foundation for interactive programs as well. That universality is handy: for example, a carmaker could release a car-control app that any smartphone with a browser can operate.

But Web programming faces a mammoth competitive threat. In recent years, mobile operating systems -- chiefly Apple's iOS and Google's Android -- have become a compelling way for companies to write control apps for devices like Google's Nest thermostat. And when it's time to build a computing systems into a car, auto makers can use Android through the Open Automotive Alliance or let Apple customers run the show through Apple CarPlay .

A browser-based interface offers flexibility, though. What if a driver has a Windows Phone or Firefox OS phone? The Web may not be as fast-moving or as slick, but it often can get the job done.

The W3C has been eager to push the Web into new domains in recent years, expanding its membership well beyond traditional computing companies. The new automotive group is one example: it's a more formal follow-on to an earlier business group effort launched two years ago that drew participation from companies including Ford, Continental, Porsche, Volkswagen, Hyundai, General Motors, Visteon and the Japan Automobile Research Institute.

Jaguar Land Rover is now a big fan of the Web for in-car entertainment systems and other computing chores. Matt Jones, head of future infotainment at Jaguar Land Rover, said in a statement:

We believe the Web is the auto industry's best path forward to keep up with rapidly changing consumer expectations and evolving technology, as well as addressing challenges such as over-the-air updates and advanced diagnostics. Using Web technology in the car will reduce time to market for automotive apps, and allowing more innovation from existing development teams.

The earlier business group will continue working on new automotive Web standards, too, the W3C said. Two particular focuses for that work will be media tuners and speech interfaces.