Blurring the line between cars and consumer electronics

Blurring the line between cars and consumer electronics

The consumer electronics industry has trained consumers to crave novelty, selection and personalization – and consumers will pay a premium for it.

In-vehicle Infotainment (IVI) systems need to step up to this challenge.

Jörg Lützner, director of online services, Continental Automotive, says that the industry now recognizes the need to react. "Three years ago, everyone was thinking, Do I need this or not?” he says. “Now, everyone has the same opinion that infotainment systems need to be more flexible, gain speed and become more attractive."

Andrei Iordache, product management specialist for Kia Motors Europe, concurs. "Smart devices are starting to govern our everyday lives and influence how we perceive and interact with our environment,” he says. “Cars need to find their place in the smart world; otherwise they would be prone to lose the technological edge.”

Unfortunately, it is not a fair race as a car is expected to be in use for 15 years, while a smart device has a lifecycle of maximum 2 years and far less development limitations.

Still, there are ways to keep up with consumer electronics, and they need not involve the replacement of the center stack every couple of years.

Smartphone integration is currently the broad favorite. But recent advances in hardware architecture, open platforms, HTML5 and over-the-air updates can all help manufacturers keep their offerings fresh.

(For more on consumer electronics and IVI, see Podcast: Consumer electronics and IVI. For more on smartphone integration, see The smartphone as a model for telematics HMIs, part I and The smartphone as a model for telematics HMIs, part II.)

Swappable hardware

Nvidia says it can help OEMs get closer to the consumer electronics lifecycle with its Tegra chip-based Visual Compute Module, or VCM. VCMs may use a variety of chips – Tegra 2, Tegra 3, Tegra 4 or the up-and-coming Kepler  sharing a single architecture.

This approach could reduce the development cycles for a manufacturer's infotainment unit because, instead of trying to make one infotainment system last three, four or five years, and then designing a new one, the OEM can create one system that can be upgraded at the factory level simply by installing the latest VCM into its standard slot, according to Phil Hughes, vice president for worldwide automotive sales, Nvidia.

(For more on Nvidia's approach, see Viewpoint: How mobile technology is accelerating the auto industry.)

Ian Riches, director for the automotive electronics service of Strategy Analytics, likens the approach to building something with a big set of Legos, instead of trying to put something together with a variety of different kits – it's faster and easier to create what you want.

This modular, platform approach is what most suppliers are embracing, according to Riches. "In advanced safety, we're seeing suppliers getting platform products where OEMs can decide on a common architecture and design philosophy, and they can buy at different price ranges," he says. "They're not perhaps field-upgradable yet, but you can swap components, and all the libraries are the same, so the qualification process is much simpler."

This approach would also save OEMs design and development costs over several model years, Hughes says. "The system could be designed around the Tegra 3 and, years later, you could put down a Tegra 4 and enable a higher level of functionality," he explains. "This wouldn't require nearly the time, cost or qualification that designing a new system would."

While it's technically feasible for car makers to enable these VCMs to be swapped out in cars after they're sold so that an eight-year-old car could benefit from a brand-new processor, no one is moving in that direction just yet, according to Hughes.

One of the main reasons is that OEM- and dealer-owned service centers are still struggling to get car owners in for mechanical services; their shops aren't prepared for messing with the CPUs. But that could change as the modular technology matures.

Open standards

Software can also be made modular across models and car makers when open standards are used.

For example, MirrorLink, in development by the Car Connectivity Consortium, aims to make possible interoperable in-drive apps. GENIVI is another infotainment standard in development that could standardize much of the software stack. 

The problem with creating standards, of course, is that it's a slow-moving process. Continental’s Lützner says that, while some manufacturers are offering MirrorLink, "we've seen customers doing their own thing because they didn't want to wait. It goes to show how important speed is in this market." Although it would optimize development costs for Continental, Lützner is philosophical. He says, "For us, it means be flexible. We have to adapt to the requirements of our customers." 

ABI Research forecasts expects the number of MirrorLink and GENIVI connected IVI systems to grow from around 10,000 in 2012 to 27.9 million in North America, Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region by the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, Continental advocates for standards with its customers – just not too hard. It does have a head unit that has achieved GENIVI compliance, and it also has hopes for HTLM5. "Even if a manufacturer wants to go with its own OS or have certain proprietary elements, if you can make maximum functionality run on HTML5, you are going a long way on this standardization direction,"  Lützner says, noting that HTML5 standard comes from the consumer electronics industry, which is another benefit.
BMW approach to modularity

That modular approach could also be taken with an OEM's proprietary software, as in the case of BMW.

Phil Johnston, product manager for the BMW Group Apps Platform from the BMW Group Technology Office, says that BMW takes a premium manufacturer approach to apps. "We're taking in what we believe are premium services, bringing them into the car in a curated manner," he says.

Each application developer needs to work directly with BMW to integrate apps, as in the case of the recently announced additions of the iOS versions of Glympse, Audible, Rhapsody and TuneIn.

This is costly and time-consuming. However, there are mitigating factors, Johnston points out. One integration puts the app in both BMWs and Minis, via the BMW Group Apps Platform. "The distribution of their app into the automotive environment is much greater than it might be because the platform is cross-brand," he says.

Bring it or send it

Updating a car's software and apps seamlessly  just like in the phone  is another important tactic for keeping the automotive environment fresh. And many automakers are expected to continue to rely on the mobile phone to add and upgrade services.

For example, BMW delivers both its own and third-party iOS apps to drivers via iTunes. (Android versions are in the works, with the distribution platform still to be determined.)

It's technically possible to send updates of embedded software in a similar way, according to Yoram Berholtz, director of market adoption for Red Bend. His company provides "Firmware Over the Air," a service that device and equipment manufacturers can use to update and manage the software in their devices, which could include software inside infotainment systems, the head unit or electronic control units.

"We have the technology to reduce almost by 95% the bandwidth needed to update the car's software," Berholtz says. OnStar is using Red Bend's solution to perform its updates, and so are heavy machinery companies including John Deere.

To use the system, the auto maker's connectivity provider needs a back end with software versions for the target cars. That includes creating updates for each version of the software that might exist in each model. Then, the car manufacturer needs to install the Red Bend client in the infotainment system to communicate with the back end, get the package and deliver it, and then perform the update.

While the auto industry works to position cars as consumer electronics devices, there is a point  still to be determined  beyond which it probably should not try to venture.

Says Kia's Iordache: "Not so long ago, a telephone was a means of communication and a TV a source of information  and now your phone can be a TV and a TV can be your phone. Similar shifts will also happen in the car, but we should not forget that a car will still be a car, and all the innovations should enrich the driving or the experience of being in the car."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on Sept. 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Brazil & LATAM 2013 on Sept. 11-12 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan/China 2013 on Oct. 8-10 in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2013 on Nov. 11-12 in Munich, Germany, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, and Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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