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Auto OEMs Dial-Up ‘Infotainment’ Connection

OEMs began making broad promises about a new age in communications and data applications for cars over a decade ago. But aside from in-car technologies that a few luxury-brand automakers offer, the vast majority of models remain devoid of anything resembling the pie-in-the-sky apps most cars were supposed to have by now.

However, Ford, Toyota, and likely other automakers in the near future, are doing something different: They are turning more to the power of smartphones for emerging in-car communications and 'infotainment' apps.

Instead of competing against OEMs that offer after-market devices for cars, Ford and Toyota are developing relatively inexpensive dashboard consoles with voice-activated and touchpad consoles that will increasingly serve as hands-free extensions of Androids, Blackberrys, and iPhones.

While automakers have offered the possibility to wirelessly port some data from smartphones to cars for years, the applications largely remain in the realm of luxury models and are expensive. Instead, Ford's Sync allows users to port applications from smartphones to a dashboard console that costs just a few hundred dollars as an option. The idea is that you port your music and other apps with you on your phone and then use voice-activated commands to manage them on your car's screen.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Ford also announced MyFord Mobile, an application that will complement Sync but is largely geared for its upcoming Focus Electric that indicates battery status and nearby charging stations for electric cars.

Toyota demonstrated its Entune infotainment system at CES, which in basic functionality is like Ford's Sync, complete with voice-activated commands and the ability to port smartphone apps to the car's console. Toyota will also offer Safety Connect so drivers can receive real-time traffic info.

However, the smartphone-centric strategy has yet to take hold among most of the world’s mainstream carmakers. {complink 12709|General Motors}, for example, continues to push its OnStar system. Instead of letting the driver bring applications to the car with an iPhone or another smartphone, GM continues to invest in a computer system that remains in the car. But will GM's OnStar system remain an incongruity vis-à-vis Ford and Toyota, or will the auto giant eventually begin to allow drivers to port their favorite smartphone apps to GM car consoles?

Luxury car makers, of course, have traditionally dominated next-generation telematics apps by offering advanced, albeit expensive, infotainment applications. BMW, for example, unveiled a working prototype a few years ago of an in-car IP-based system able to stream data back and forth from smartphones and desktop PCs with either a cellular or a WiFi link. However, the application has not yet come to market.

Audi is reportedly working with {complink 3926|Nvidia Corp.} to develop a graphically intensive console for navigation and other apps. Mercedes and BMW are developing IP-based in-car communication systems that will warn drivers of upcoming accidents and other road hazards in real time (the exact launch dates of these applications have not yet been disclosed).

However, the perennial problem for automakers that offer advanced in-car technologies as options is the long development cycles of three or more years for in-car technologies. The latest-and-greatest car technology today is very often not-so-new when it sees launch three years later. This is especially problematic for the luxury-brand carmakers that try to remain ahead of the after-market technology curve to justify their premium-brand prices. Paying well over $1,000 for Mercedes' installed GPS system was not very enticing when it was twice as cheap to buy the latest Navman after-market device just a few years ago.

So what are OEMs to do? With the explosion of smartphones that offer processing and graphics power and 3G connectivity, most automakers may follow Ford’s and Toyota’s lead by letting the smartphone developers figure out what works best for car “infotainment.”

4 comments on “Auto OEMs Dial-Up ‘Infotainment’ Connection

  1. AnalyzeThis
    January 26, 2011

    You are correct that a perennial problem for automakers is that the long development cycles cars undergo often lead to last-generation technology by the time these cars hit the market.

    But even if car manufacturers managed to correct his problem by shortening their development cycles and ensuring that the latest technology makes it into the finished product, this still won't solve the issue of obsolescence over the lifecycle of the car.

    This is a slightly different situation with the premium-brands, but if you take something like the Chevy Cruze, that's a car someone might own for 10+ years. That technology certainly won't be whiz-bang in a decade, it may not even be functionable.

    I think taking advantage of the power of smartphones is a step in the right direction, but long-term, it will really make sense for car manufacturers to design their products to be upgraded down the road. I'm sure they could figure out a way to profit from this, imagine taking your car to the dealership every 3-4 years to get it upgraded to the latest “version” of your car… for a couple of hundred bucks, of course.

    Now this kind of thing does kind of happen to some extent already, but not with in-car communications and entertainment systems. I think eventually things will continue to move in this direction. It's somewhat essential, given how fast things change: for example, if you bought a car with a FLO TV system in it a year or two ago… that's going to stop working completely in March, rendering it fairly useless.

  2. eemom
    January 26, 2011

    Besides the issue of technology getting obsoleted too quickly for a vehicle, which to me is a major issue, I wonder if there is concern over too much technology or information which will distract drivers.  The driver is currently distracted by the GPS system, using their cell phones (even with bluetooth), satellite radio, etc.  If there is more for the driver to contend with, doesn't the issue of driver distraction come into play? 

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    January 27, 2011

    I see here, a big opportunity for smart phone manufacturers. If these companies develop a plug-in version of their smartphones for cars then there is a big business opportunity for them. This plug-in module could use a driver friendly user interface ( car's built-in Audio system, portable display screen and a touch pad built on the car's dashboard ) to work.  Since the user interface is generic it may not have to be changed every now and then and the car manufacturers can design this UI to match the interior design of their various model. Just plug in the smart mobile model into it and you have the latest smart-phone in your car.

  4. Eldredge
    January 27, 2011

    A smart interface is a solution that makes a lot of sense. Once an iterface has been standardized, the technology upgrades in the devices can be accommodated.

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