The dashboard is due for disruption

There are lots of reasons why your car’s infotainment systems don’t work like a smartphone. But that is finally about to change.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

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.

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