Why proprietary in-car navigation systems need to die

Why proprietary in-car navigation systems need to die

Summary: Cars need to have multifunction displays that are slaves to our smartphones, instead of overpriced and proprietary navigation systems.

TOPICS: Smartphones

Ah, the joy of car shopping.

Next week, I'm going to be driving the 1,260-mile trek to our new Florida home. Be it as it may, only one of our cars is migrating with us -- I decided that the oldest of our two vehicles was going to get donated to charity, as it needed considerable repairs and shipping it on a tractor trailer was going to be prohibitively expensive and not worth it given the age and value of the car.

So we decided to look at a number of new and previously owned cars this weekend -- Lexuses, Toyotas, and Volkswagens.

Right now, I think the Volkswagen Passat TDI is in the lead for my vehicle of choice, but I still have to take a look at the Sonata Hybrid.

Regardless of the cars and the manufacturers I looked at, one thing I noticed was the tendency to upsell or bundle in the built-in auto navigation systems with "packages", particularly if you want other premium features, which ends up adding considerable cost to the vehicle.

Honestly, these built-in automobile navigation systems suck. Compared to the smartphone-based navigation apps I have seen built into the iPhone and Android, they are way behind technologically.

Not only are these systems ridiculously expensive for what they offer, but the user interfaces are atrocious, and they also don't have the benefit of being updated with dynamic information from the Cloud using a 3G or 4G data connection.

You have to pay to get the map updates (which are expensive) and they don't have the level of GPS and data services/app integration you can get on your phone.

And while the legislation is currently delayed, it is probably inevitable within the next five years that new cars sold in United States will need to have an in-car display unit which is to be used with a rear-view video camera.

So why not put that display to better use?

Just like automotive electronics have standards for hands-free Bluetooth audio, it seems apparent to me that there should be a standard established for which a multi-function touchscreen display and car audio could be integrated or wirelessly connected to a smartphone, regardless of the manufacturer.

The connection could be done via Bluetooth v3.0+HS, or through the proposed Bluetooth 4.0 implementation.

Essentially, this would be a thin-client type of remote display and remote audio session, not unlike what Apple does with AirPlay and screen mirroring on their own devices.

An existing standard established by the Car Connectivity Consortium, known as MirrorLink and formerly known as "Terminal Mode" has been under development for some time, but has not gotten broad industry buy-in by actual automobile vendors to install it as factory equipment.

So far, only SONY has released a line of aftermarket car radios which use it, and Alpine will be offering a MirrorLink-based aftermarket system in the United States in 2013.

Ideally, this standard would include some type of "Car Mode" or specialized automotive user interface designed for each mobile OS, whether it is iOS, Android or Windows Phone.

It would primarily be used to display the navigation UI and for call management, but it could also be used for in-car multimedia controls or even a display mode for specific types of applications, such as a restaurant search program or text messaging notification.

Such a car network could make use of an intelligent agent like Siri, which could act as personal assistant and would manage the information data streams and could report them to the driver as needed, such as critical automobile telemetry or even traffic alerts and dynamic route guidance.

This would have a number of advantages. First, it prevents the in-car navigation and multimedia features from going obsolete, because the lifetime of the smartphone is only a fraction of a car's lifetime.

A smartphone may be used for two or three years and will be replaced likely after a wireless contract expires, whereas a car lives upwards of ten years or more, particularly if it goes through more than one owner.

Second, the electronics for integrating this sort of thing would be far less complicated and proprietary than what exists in cars now.

The entire platform could be reduced to a replaceable 5" backlit LCD touchscreen and probably a very low power ARM-based SoC with integrated Bluetooth/Wi-Fi transceiver, not unlike what exists in the Raspberry Pi $25 Linux computer or an Apple TV.

And it would need just enough OS (JeOS) to run the in-car network. That's it.

The hard buttons in a car's main "stack" could be completely eliminated, or they could be standardized and streamlined for use with this display unit.

This "embedded carputer" would be no more than $100 worth of hardware total, and that would include additional "options" such as satellite radio, which could be software-enabled via subscriber service entitlements.

Third, by interfacing the car with one's personal smartphone, it allows for much more personalization of services. A car might be shared by a husband, a wife (or life partner) and one or more teenage drivers, each of which owns their own smartphone.

Each person would have their own apps installed on their phone, and also would store their own saved destinations, routes and waypoints.

In a household where you have more than one automobile, or if you need to rent a car when you travel, it's simply just a matter of the person wirelessly attaching to that car's internal network with their smartphone, and all of their personal data goes with them, cloud and all.

Like the dedicated mobile navigation device, are dedicated in-car navigation systems due for a smartphone disruption? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Great idea but

    don't hold your breath.
    Can you imagine the profit on those underpowered computers that are going into cars now? I saw one that advertised an 80 gig hard drive. I can't imagine anyone boasting about an 80 gig drive on a computer, even if it is an SD.
    A. G.
  • Oh, come now...

    How many modern cars will *actually* last ten years or more?
    • In developing countries...

      You would be very surprised how long they make cars last. Given the state of the US economy, cars are going to be maintained and kept a lot longer.
      • agreed

        and with the manufacturing model used for a lot of the less "special" cars, it's only going to get cheaper to repair older cars when you can use the parts from cars a couple years older or newer
    • Most of them.

      I'd say most of them. How many people replace their cars in less than ten years?
      • Some countries won't register older than 10 year old cars

        I was transfered to a country, for work reasons, where cars older than 10 year old from the date of manufacture cannot be registered.
        Unless if it's a classic car, cars built around 70's and 80's.
        So you'll be forced to sell or export, when the time limit (10 years) is reached.
        • Country name please.

          Which country is this.
      • What country was that?

        What country was that, Martmarty? Something seems.... off that they would make you buy a new car when yours is only 10 years old when cars are built today to last 20 or more.
      • That's a really strange law.

        That's a really strange law. I don't imagine it's a common one. Forcing people to buy a new product, even if the old one in good working condition?
      • Japan

        I'm not sure which country was mentioned by Martmarty, but Japan has rules like that. And it helps the industry pretty much! Their old cars get sold to the poor Asian and all ex-soviet countries, theres a huge market.
      • Japan has rules

        that a car 10 years or older has to pass some sort of vigorous inspection to be allowed to keep it on the road. If it doesn't pass you spend quite a bit of money to get it fixed. For less expensive cars, not worth the money, so cheaper to export it and get a new one.

        For a more expensive car (imported sports cars, ect) well worth the money to pass the 10 year special inspection
        William Farrel
        • Older car registration!

          What Marty perhaps refered to was that he was unable to import his vehicle to the country he moved to. In many countries you are not allowed to import vehicles older than certain age. In my case, that limit is 5 years. Of course once you register your car here under the 5 year treshhold, you may drive it till kingdom comes! The difference betwen the industrialized and the poor countries, is that the tests (as W. Farrel mentioned) are very rigorous and detailed in the former, and probably require replacement of many - still working parts - which would bump-up the bill for the owner. In additiona to all that, the vehicle taxes escalate tremndously and suddenly once the certain age group is reached, "forcing" the owner to find a way of getting rid of the - still decent but now old - car. On the other hand, in the less industriualized countries, the test are much more "relaxed" and the whole approach there is completely different - they make sure the cars are somewhat roadworthy. I also doubt there is a heafty aging related taxation in such parts of the world.This just reminded me of Cuba and its motor fleet. India and most African countries are not far from that thought too!
      • Three times in the past 10 years

        Although my current car (5.5 years) will hopefully last closer to 10. But chances are, at some point well before then I'm going to be staring at a massive repair bill and decide to roll that cost into a new car instead. I hate unreliable equipment, and when cars start to exhibit signs of unreliability, I am quick to bail on them.
    • You'd be surprised

      Car reliability and quality has improved quite a lot. Many models will last years, if not more.
    • Car Lifetimes

      How long does a car last? I bought a Plymouth new in 1990; replaced it with a new Mitsubishi in 2000; replaced THAT with a new Chrysler in 2009. And none of these cars were all that bad when I replaced them.

      Drive it gently and change the oil every 3K miles, and 10 years is a perfectly reasonable estimate for a car's lifetime. Yes, if you're a traveling salesman and you do 50K miles per year, then a new car every other year makes sense. But for MOST people..... Cell phones and GPS units are dirt-cheap to replace, and the new functionality for modern electronics improves markedly in every generation.
      • every 3k miles?

        you change your oil every 3k miles? You gotta be kidding me. Oil can easily go to 7k miles. Problem is, in the US everyone is told otherwise. But check in the user's manual of any European car, and you will learn that this quick oil changes are just made up to support their industry.
      • People that change their Oil every 3k are just losing money.

        Your car will run better and last longer if you change it every 5-7K. Just sold a Focus ZX4 with 200k on it and it runs better than any other car that had 100k. And Oil was changed every 6K. The key is the oil spec. If you dont have synthetic oil ask for SAE yyW-xx and API sercive SG classification or better SH SI SJ. With synthetic oils its limited. Most companies that produce oils test their oils at three different sites with at least 50% more millage than what they are rated for. So an SAE 5W-20 oil with an SG classification should easily last 5000 miles and thats as old of a service classification you will get now a days. Most API (American Petroleum Institute) Service classifications are: SN, SM, SL and SJ which offer even better service millage.
    • Quite a few

      I have a 2000 Dodge Dakota that is still going strong and has had no repairs other than normal maintenance and some body work from a fender bender.
    • One example

      My VW is 5 years old with 111,000 miles and other than replacing the battery, tires and rear brake pads (fronts soon) absolutely nothing has worn out or otherwise failed yet. At most I believe I am 50% into the life of this car.
    • "How many modern cars will *actually* last ten years or more?"

      Everybody, calm down. This is obviously a troll. In spite of rigorous laws in some countries like Japan, worldwide, there are enough automobiles still on the roads that are more than ten years old to make his comment either an ignorant one or more likely deliberate troll.

      Most of the vehicles I've driven in the last 20 years were more than ten years old when I bought them. My cost of ownership was much less than new car depreciation as well as providing considerable savings in finance charges and insurance. I will likely continue to drive 10 year old cars until legislation makes it no longer possible. As far as environmental concerns go, there is a tremendous cost to the environment in replacing older cars by building new ones. As long as my older car can pass vehicle emissions testing I'm pretty sure that I'm not harming the environment even as much as those who trade up every 3 to 4 years.