With smartphone integration and Internet connectivity, car manufacturers are in unfamiliar territory – without a map. By Andrew Del-Colle
Our phones and our cars are colliding. Despite a ban on in-car cellphone use, car buyers are increasingly demanding smartphone-style connectivity. And carmakers are scrambling to provide interactive systems that harness or imitate the features of popular handsets. These so-called infotainment systems, such as Ford’s Sync and Toyota’s Entune, have voice control and Internet connectivity, and they can run apps such as Pandora. In a world where quality engineering can be bought even in entry-level cars, infotainment systems are increasingly seen as a differentiator – but they have become a high-tech headache for carmakers.
“It’s kind of a mess,” says Roger Lanctot, a senior analyst at technology research firm Strategy Analytics. “Because these systems are proprietary, it’s expensive to deploy content app by app. They are also all brand-new, and they work differently, so you have usability issues and glitches galore.”
The technology trap
Arguably one of the most advanced infotainment systems on the market is Sync with MyFord Touch. Its capabilities are formidable: it has touchsensitive, capacitive buttons; it can understand complex voice commands, make hands-free calls, read your text messages to you, run Pandora from connected smartphone devices, and give you turn-by-turn navigation. But for all of its sophistication, MyFord Touch has been criticised for being slow, cluttered and confusing. The system is a big reason why Ford USA fell from fifth place to 23rd in J D Power’s 2011 Initial Quality Study. Now Ford is sending out more than 300 000 USB drives to update it.
Systems like MyFord Touch tap into the cellular-connection and dataprocessing power of smartphones for many of their functions, but deliver user interfaces that pale in comparison to those of the phones. All of which raises the question: why don’t carmakers just use the phone operating systems in the first place?
Phoning it in
As it turns out, there are systems in development that can, to a degree, port your smartphone’s UI to your vehicle’s screen. One such technology is Nokia’s MirrorLink. Once the phone is connected to the car, MirrorLink essentially turns your dashboard display into a slightly modified version of your smartphone screen – as long as the phone and the vehicle display are MirrorLink-capable. MirrorLink has some big backers, including Toyota, General Motors, Nokia and LG and could start appearing in s elect vehicles and phones in the next couple of years, Lanctot says. But then again, it may not, since one company notably absent from the MirrorLink supporter list is Apple, the most influential smartphone-maker in the world.
But even if smartphones are superior to most factoryinstalled infotainment systems, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are an ideal replacement. Andy Gryc is the automotive product manager at QNX, a software company that has provided the code for almost 30 million vehicles on the road. “You have an expectation of how an application behaves on your phone, with a small display and a ton of RAM,” he says. “You’re used to scrolling around through menus and pinching and zooming and all these things, and when you take that same display and replicate it in the car, the experience
isn’t the same.”
Systems such as MirrorLink could exacerbate the nettlesome problem of driver distraction. When a carmaker creates its own interface, it can control the driving experience. But if the screen in the vehicle is essentially a pass-through to somebody else’s software, that raises a big red liability flag.
So automakers will want to tightly control which apps and functions are allowed.
Still, using the phone’s interface could free carmakers from some of the fast-paced burdens of software development. Vehicles generally take years to design, whereas smartphone operating systems and apps can be updated every few months.
Cue the future
If MirrorLink is the answer, it’s only a temporary one. According to Mike Hichme, engineering manager for Cadillac’s Cue system, no car can be fully dependent on a phone. “(MirrorLink) is a feature; that’s not the solution,” he says. Automakers still need to design radio, HVAC and other basic vehicle controls. No car company is willing to just hand off fundamental parts of the driving experience to a phone.
Plus, it turns out that auto interfaces may be learning some smartphone tricks after all. Hichme’s Cue system, set to premiere in three models later this year, can run HTML5, the same software language behind powerful Web apps such as Gmail. HTML5 should make it easier for developers to create apps that run across all platforms – which may ultimately neutralise the power struggle between smartphone and car. Still, HTML5 doesn’t mean an app free-for-all. No one thinks playing Angry Birds in the car is wise.
Unfortunately for manufacturers, none of this makes the decisions any easier. If a car is just beginning the production process, there’s no one answer and no knowing where the industry will be three or four years from now. “It’s just painful to have to make these decisions when things are changing too damn fast,” Lanctot says.
Video > Nokia Car Mode with MirrorLink