Can telematics infotainment services be future-proofed?

Can telematics infotainment services be future-proofed?

Most telematics insiders think automotive connectivity will continue to be a mix of embedded, over-the-air, and a hybrid of the two for, probably, years to come. When it comes to updates of content and services, each has pros and cons.

An embedded modem that can directly take over-the-air updates offers the most security and control for automakers. However, it's the most expensive for OEMs and consumers. While many wireless telcos are either providing in-car connectivity or working to accommodate it, no one wants to pay extra for the data plan—especially not consumers. (For more on data plans, see Telematics and the search for a universal data plan.)

Using the cell phone for connectivity via a Bluetooth connection to in-car systems—the ‘brought-in’ model—lets auto and infotainment systems makers get up and running fast, while tapping into the strong mobile developer ecosystem. New content and services can be offered and delivered through existing mobile app stores, connecting to in-car systems via APIs provided by the system software or third-party platforms. (For more on the ‘brought-in’ model, see Telematics and the ‘built-in’ vs. ‘brought-in’ debate.)

The home computer accessing a Web portal provides the best experience for the driver, who can pick through applications on the wide home screen at his or her leisure, scheduling them for downloads to the phone or directly to the car. Chevrolet's MyLink and Toyota's Touch & Go systems use the Web portal approach. (The Digital Living Alliance aims to make content and apps available seamlessly on multiple devices, including, perhaps someday, the infotainment system.)

Finally, the simplest and most direct, although less elegant, method is to load that stuff onto a USB key and then stick that into a port. Toyota and Ford have taken the route of simplicity to do mass updates for their infotainment services.

The USB connection

Harman recently announced that it had begun to deliver new content to Toyota's Touch & Go head unit. Toyota offers a dedicated application delivery platform to let drivers access new content and applications.

The car owner visits the Toyota Web portal to select content and then downloads it onto a USB drive that plugs into the car. Harman created the portal and platform for Toyota; Toyota is the first customer for Harman's Aha platform. At launch, fuel price, weather data, parking availabilities, ecodriving, and “Park & Go” applications were available.

"It's a good way to strike that middle ground," says Rick Kreifeld, vice president global automotive research and innovation at Harman International. “For the download, it kept the cost of the system down. If you had to do it over the air to the car, it's technically more elegant, but involves more hardware costs.”

Kreifeld had no information on how many customers performed the upgrade, because that's Toyota's deal. "This is about relationship of the OEM to the customer. All communications can be driven through dealers and through the Toyota system itself. They are using the traditional dealer channel," he says.

Offering upgrades to content and services can be a good way to build the customer relationship. However, getting the word out and then getting them to go to the portal often requires repeated messaging from the dealer or the car company. A good proportion of customers never will update.

Kreifeld sees the USB strategy as a stepping-stone on the way to a truly hybrid approach to updates that may be sent over air or brought in. It starts with services that don't change so often and can therefore be embedded in the car, such as email and navigation.

"Certain services change very rapidly and frequently. Those, you want to move toward a phone app or a cloud application," Kreifeld says.

Key to this strategy is Harman's acquisition of streaming audio Web content provider Aha Mobile. The Aha application framework will enable the infotainment unit to get upgrades either over the air or via the USB. 

Keeping in touch

Ford launched what it called a significant upgrade to its MyFord Touch using the USB method. The upgrade responds to criticism with a simpler interface and faster response, as well as improving voice recognition, better interfacing with tablet computers, and the ability to use

Ford built in upgradability via USB from the first generation of SYNC, according to Jim Buczkowski, director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering for Ford Motor Company. Content from the USB connects directly to the SYNC portion of MyFord Touch, which contains code to prevent the loading of unauthorized data.

While the actual upgrade process was as simple as plugging the USB into a port in the media hub, getting it into the hands of Ford owners was a massive undertaking.

Ford mailed out upgrade packages to customers in the US containing a USB drive with the updated software, a notification letter, an updated user guide, and detailed instructions for the 60-minute download. Owners with navigation also received an updated SD card with new map data. Customers had the option of taking the car to a dealer for the upgrade.

Says Buczkowski, "We're starting to see the car have the kind of upgrades and improvements that you would see on a laptop or phone."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on update strategies, see Special report: Telematics and apps.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics Europe 2012 on May 9-10 in London, Telematics Detroit 2012 on June 6-7, and Insurance Telematics USA 2012 in September in Chicago.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports on In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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