The dashboard is due for disruption

The dashboard is due for disruption

Summary: There are lots of reasons why your car’s infotainment systems don’t work like a smartphone. But that is finally about to change.


Apple’s CarPlay announcement at the Geneva Motor Show this week got me thinking about the state of in-vehicle infotainment systems. In recent years carmakers have invested heavily in systems with features such as connectivity, voice controls, search and apps. But the overall experience still pales in comparison to using a smartphone or tablet. It turns out there are a lot of good reasons for this.

By high-tech standards, the automotive market is relatively small. Last year automakers sold 15.6 million cars in the U.S.--and that was a good year with 8 percent growth. To put that in perspective, Apple sold more iPhones and iPads in a month (an average of about 19 million per month in 2013). Furthermore only a fraction of those new cars come with high-end infotainment systems because they are usually a pricey option.

The automotive semiconductor market has been growing at a healthy rate, but it is still less than 10 percent of the total chip market by sales. And infotainment is only one of several segments, with much of the growth coming from electronics for the drivetrains and powertrains in hybrids and electric vehicles, as well as vehicle-safety and driver-assistance features. The average car now has about $350 worth of semiconductors, according to McKinsey. That sounds like a lot, but we’re not talking Apple A7s here. The bulk of this is hundreds of microcontrollers, analog chips, sensors and discrete components.

The car industry is also a poor match for the fast-moving tech sector. It takes years to design a car and the components are all selected well in advance. That’s why, for example, Audi’s most advanced Connected Car system arriving in models this year uses Nvidia’s Tegra 3, a chip that first debuted in an Asus tablet in late 2011. (The Tesla Model S already uses the Tegra 2 and Tegra 3, but it’s not your typical car company.)

In-vehicle systems also have long qualification cycles because carmakers have to worry about safety, reliability and heavy regulations. As a result, they are risk averse, and once they approve a set of hardware and software, they don’t make changes for a long time. That’s why Nvidia has announced that it plans to keep the Tegra 2 and 3 in production for a decade.

Finally cars have long lifecycles. Smartphone lifecycles are measured in months while the average age of a car on the road in the U.S. is more than 11 years--a lifetime in the tech industry. And there is no simple, standard way to upgrade the hardware or update the operating system and apps.

The top suppliers--Renesas, Infineon, STMicroelectronics, Freescale and NXP--are used to dealing with these issues. But for mobile chipmakers trying to break into automotive, these are big hurdles.

Nvidia has been the most aggressive targeting cars right alongside “super phones,” high-end tablets and smart TVs. It is developing a Tegra Visual Computing Module (VCM) that Nvidia claims can work alongside existing vehicle systems, run standard vehicle operating systems (such as BlackBerry’s QNX, Linux and Windows Embedded), and be upgraded over time with newer processors. The Tegra 3 VCM in the Audi Connect system in 2015 models will deliver more than double the performance of its current system, Nvidia said. The company plans to release a VCM based on the upcoming Tegra K1 processor that will be capable of powering camera-based driver assistance systems---something that currently requires “proprietary” chipsets and software. BMW, Tesla, Volkswagen, Skoda and Seat also have some models with in-vehicle systems powered by its chips.

The mobile operating system vendors have figured out an easier way around the issues with the automotive market. Carmakers have spent a lot of time and money building proprietary infotainment systems on top of QNX, Linux and Windows Embedded. They consider these differentiators and they can charge a premium for them. So instead of attempting to rip and replace these proprietary infotainment systems, why not use the smartphone’s OS and apps to drive a second system over the top. When you connect a smartphone to a compatible system, a simplified version of its interface appears on the car’s display (typically a ~7-inch screen). The head unit isn’t actually running the mobile OS, but you can use voice, touch and the buttons on the steering wheel or dashboard to control it and run apps.

Apple’s CarPlay works with any Lightning-equipped iPhone (the 5, 5c or 5s) and displays a version of the iOS interface on your car’s display. You can then use Siri or touch to make calls or handle messages, access Apple Maps, and listen to content on iTunes or from a limited set of audio apps including iHeartRadio and Spotify. At the auto show this week, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo were demonstrating models with CarPlay--some of which will be available this year. (Volvo posted a video that shows how CarPlay works.) Apple said BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot Citroen, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota are also planning to adopt CarPlay.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Google announced an Open Automotive Alliance to develop a competing infotainment system leveraging Android smartphones. The alliance includes Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Nvidia. At the time, Google said the first cars with Android would appear by the end of this year, but it hasn’t said much since.

Finally there is MirrorLink, an OEM- and OS-agnostic technology which is built on a collection of existing standards and managed by a group called the Car Connectivity Consortium. In Geneva Peugeot Citroen demonstrated two MirrorLink-enabled models--among the first mass market vehicles to support it--though the consortium’s site lists hundreds of certified head units and smartphones. Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen and GM have also said they are rolling out MirrorLink-equipped cars and the consortium includes several other major automakers (BMW, Daimler, Fiat, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Volvo) along with smartphone companies HTC, LG Electronics, Nokia and Samsung.

This over-the-top approach using the smartphone has a lot of advantages. Carmakers can continue to push their proprietary hardware and software, each model can support multiple smartphones and operating systems, customers can use their existing devices and services (and update the software as needed), and developers don’t have to worry about building different versions of their apps for every automaker and model. It isn’t as simple as taking the smartphone and mirroring it on the car’s display because of issues such as driver distraction and privacy. This is why only certain apps will run in the car. But even with a limited set of features and apps, these smartphone-based systems should soon deliver a much better experience in the car.

Related Coverage:

Topics: Smartphones, Android, iOS, Tablets

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  • Sigh....

    "There are lots of reasons why your car’s infotainment systems don’t work like a smartphone."

    Yes there are - very good ones. For starters, people are generally trying to drive their cars when these systems are in use. We already know how well smartphones do at enhancing peoples' abilities to drive.

    "But that is finally about to change."

    Hoping that the local EMS units have enough ambulances to deal with the increase in traffic injuries that we'll be seeing in the coming years.
    • I agree. Mnay of these people are coming off as foolish, anymore

      we got people swearing Google Glass will be great for driving because fighter pilots use the same thing, while totally forgetting that fighter jets, how they operate and where they operate is totally opposite to what cars do and where they do it, and now we have people who want their car to work like a smartphone because what they are, and what they do, are so very similar. ;)

      Doing something because it can be done, doesn't mean it's actually a smart thing to do.

      I'm with you on that last part, but look on the bright side - at least their connected car could automatically call for an ambulance as they lay bleeding in the wreckage...
    • I think you miss the entire point...

      The entire point of a car infotainment system is so that the user can listen to music from all the sources they are used to - their phone, pandora, spotify, etc. - WITHOUT needing to pull out their phone and take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road.

      The entire point of a car infotainment system is so that the user can find destinations and navigate - WITHOUT needing to pull out their phone and take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road.

      The entire point of a car infotainment system is to manage and mitigate distractions, making these things integrated into the car, into the car's controls, the car's dashboard.

      This is the same sort of safety improvement over trying to use a dongle-attached phone in a car that you saw from having steering wheel controls for radio and cruise control.

      If you for some reason think the argument is "in car infotainment system" vs. "driving in silence, focused on the road", I think that's an ignorant and invalid comparison.

      In reality, car makers are addressing the real issue - "in car infotainment system" vs. "trying to manage a smartphone on a dongle because my car has no infotainment system".

      If you are seeing this as a safety risk as opposed to a safety improvement, I'd say you are a good deal disconnected from reality that exists today.
      • Not entirely...

        Infotainment systems pre-date smartphones. There have also been systems that sync with smartphones and portable media players for years, also allowing wireless playback of media and control via the steering wheel. The things you call "safety improvement" is what the rest of us already know as the "status quo".

        It is the addition of a touch screen and the use of apps, games, and other interactive entertainment apps that is the problem - the only value that these things bring to the driver do so to the detriment of safety, because they all create additional distractions to the driver. Ironically, the use of touch screen devices in a car (including built-in GPS units) is already illegal in some states and provinces.

        Your argument is essentially "make unnecessary distractions easier for drivers because there are some drivers who will just ignore common sense and continue texting, adjusting GPS units, searching for music or watching DVDs while they drive". Perhaps by your logic, we should also find ways to make it safer for the driver to drink a beer while driving, since the "reality that exists today" is that some people still drink and drive.
        • Just to clarify...

          "the use of touch screen devices in a car (including built-in GPS units) is already illegal in some states and provinces. "

          By that I am referring to adjusting or interacting with touch-screen GPS units while driving is illegal (at least in Alberta, where I live). *using* them obviously isn't.
          • With voice control, there is no need to touch the screen,

            and GPS search for destinations can also be done with voice control. I have GPS, and I can control my Sync system to set a destination or seek a destination, via voice control. I also don't need to touch anything on my "infotainment" system, since I can do it all with voice control.

            The best option for anybody is to, set controls for the infotainment system before starting to drive. It's a lot easier that way, but then, you might as well not have an "infotainment" system.
          • Voice Control .. (Ford Sync/Navigation)

            I also have a Ford with Sync and Navigation, and find it easy to just tell the system where I want to go. The system will not let me use the touch screen to make navigational changes when the car is in motion, so that stops drivers from inputting
            anything while driving. Everything else can be done via voice or steering wheel buttons/controls.
            I am not sure why the article basically states that the Apple system will be implemented into almost every car maker's vehicles, as Ford is supposed to be going with QNX ... some how I think he got carried away, and just kept adding car manufactures ... lol
            And the idea of Apple's system dominating the car industry is way to scary for me to comprehend. Either it is a big joke, or there is just no other competitor out there ready to balance the universe.
            "Apple’s CarPlay works with any Lightning-equipped iPhone" And what is with this?
            If you buy a car with this system in it, do you have to have a Apple iPhone? And why the hell in this day and age do you need to tether a phone to your car?
            My phone works perfectly well using BT! Won't the system be smart enough to know that you have a certain phone type, and configure itself accordingly?
            I do not want to be locked down based on the infotainment system built into a car!
            I would like to be able to choose the Infotainment system in my next car, like I can choose the color or options. Hopefully by the time I purchase my next vehicle I will!
  • Good old radio is good enough in the car

    Focus on the road.
    • Yeah!

      Give me a radio with PHYSICAL BUTTONS AND DIALS so I can change channel and volume without moving my eyes from the road.
    • That's exactly the logic that leads to car accidents.

      Because the person who owns a car with 'just a radio' is then forced to Rube-Goldberg dongle their smartphone to some kludgey "aux input", and very much has to take their eyes off the road and at least one hand on the wheel to listen to their music.

      Having one of these systems on-board, with a good design, means the user CAN leave their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road - and doesn't have to compromise on what they listen to on their daily commute they are forced to make twice a day, in their vehicle that they spent (on average in the USA) $30K on.

      The "car as a penalty box" mentality is not (by any stretch) realistic, and WILL lead the user to eventually have suction-cup, cord-dongle, seat-laying, unsafe and distracting objects floating around the interior. THAT is what is unsafe.
      • entertainment dashboards

        Having both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road does NOT mean that your BRAIN in concentrating on driving - the failure of hands off cell kits to reduce accidents tends to demonstrate this.

        I would have though that most tecchy-heads would have welcomed a spell in the car, actually driving in the world of reality (with potential death just a crunch of colliding steel away) from the brain numbing, virtual world of technology.

        (Maybe some crap for the kids in the back's OK!)
  • It's not your office. Or your den.

    It's a freakin' CAR!!! And, quite often, there's someone in there who should be concentrating on what they're doing, NOT concentrating on being infotained!!!
    • Well then, let's make sure that people don't take their smartphones into

      their cars, and then we'll all be more safe.

      But, the cat's been let out of the bag, and it won't be easy getting it back in. So, perhaps a safer and smarter system than smartphones in the hand, is a better option. I already have such a system in my car, and I don't ever have to pick up my smartphone for voice communications, and I don't have to touch my GPS for navigation, and I don't have to touch the radio buttons to find music of talk shows, and I don't have to touch climate control buttons to get my car's interior into a comfortable temperature.

      The technology is already in cars, and eventually, ALL cars will get that same tech, even as standard equipment.
      • OMG you're Soooooo EMPOWERED!

        While you're congratulating yourself (or demons.trating to your passsenger) just what you don't have to do, you'll drive into a bus
  • Well...

    if done right it will be a lot safer then what peeps are doing now.
    • Exactly!

      People are already checking their email on the road, not to mention getting driving directions on the GPS. If this could be all done by voice it would be safer.
      • Most currently dont check email on the road

        Something tells me, this could possible increase that number dramatically, eliminating any safety benefits you think it could bring.
    • This is the real truth.

      People who are arguing "in car infotainment vs. sitting in silence" are making an ignorant argument.

      The real consideration is "in car infotainment vs. what people are doing now" - and that includes all sorts of Rube Goldberg stuck-on, tethered, dongled, distracting, FAR less than ergonomic solutions that were NOT made for a car...

      A well designed solution addresses these concerns and risks.

      And realistically, it's no different and potentially LESS distracting than a radio that sends you looking down at the dial and punching preset buttons every time those damn 10-minute-long commercial "breaks" come on.
      • You are making an ignorant argument...

        "People who are arguing "in car infotainment vs. sitting in silence" are making an ignorant argument."

        Nobody is saying that you have to "sit in silence". Apple is hardly inventing the ability to use a portable media device with a vehicle in a hands-free fashion here. Those have been around since the original iPod. What Apple is essentially bringing to the vehicle dash is a smartphone interface and touch screen - presumably to deal with the "ugly" interfaces that exist in current cars.

        It is the touch screen aspect of the system that is counter to vehicle safety. While muscle memory works well with the radio dial and physical buttons on the dash, or with controls on the steering wheel, a touch screen doesn't offer that - the driver has to look down to see the "state" of the infotainment system before he/she can interact with it.

        And speech isn't a solution - at least not yet. Speech recognition is still inaccurate enough that now you're just getting more angry, frustrated drivers who are also distracted when their radio misunderstands their request and turns on the local swedish polka station instead of the weather and traffic report.
  • Buy vs own, and how long things last

    "By high-tech standards, the automotive market is relatively small. Last year automakers sold 15.6 million cars in the U.S.--and that was a good year with 8 percent growth. To put that in perspective, Apple sold more iPhones and iPads in a month (an average of about 19 million per month in 2013)."

    Keep in mind that you're talking about buying vs owning, cars are often bought used, and cars are supposed to last more than ten years. And of course, they are major investments, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

    Smart phones, on the other hand, are usually bought new, and often don't last much more than two years. Thus, the sales figures are actually quite inflated relative to the installed base.

    So it's actually likely that more people own cars than cell phones. The automotive market isn't actually small - it's just that people don't need new cars as often.

    This is also why I'm not terribly worried about PCs. They're becoming more like cars; they're lasting longer, and an older one will still run most apps today. The installed base is probably still there, even though sales are slowing down.

    Heck, if it weren't for being a gamer, I probably could've stuck to my Core 2 Quad, even today. It had no problems with web browsers and Microsoft Office.