Making The Connected Car A Reality

Making The Connected Car A Reality

Everyone from Microsoft to Google and Ford to Audi unveiled new concepts that make the connected car of the future seem a present-day reality: infotainment systems with Wi-Fi capability and advanced voice recognition; cars that can read aloud tweets from Twitter, play and identify songs off Pandora, and keep drivers apprised of problems in their engines, all while enabling hands-free cell phone use and voice-activated email.

Yet in truth, while CES highlighted the plethora of concepts abuzz in the in-car infotainment industry, the implementation of those concepts still lags behind. “There’s a lot of really cool stuff out there, and OEs are excited about the solutions they’re being presented with,” says Len Konecny, vice-president business development at Clear Channel Total Traffic Network.

“At the same time,” Konecny continues, “what are the costs, what’s the business model, what’s the return on investment, and what’s the driver distraction? Those are all issues that have to be balanced before we can put these features in an advanced commercial environment on a display screen for the driver.”

The development cycle

One impediment to implementation is the development cycle. It takes three to four years to bring a new car to market, so technologies that are cutting-edge today face the risk of being antiquated when they finally get adopted. That is, if they get adopted at all.

Because of the development lag, OEs often shy away from projecting which technologies will be popular 36 months in the future. “It’s like the chicken or the egg game,” Konecny says. “The technology exists, but what is the real-use case for utilization?”

Clear Channel Total Traffic Network, for instance, has the capability to deliver traffic and other information faster and more precisely to GPS devices through HD, a much larger and faster transport than Radio Data System-Traffic Messaging Channel (RDS-TMC).

Yet most of the company's navigation revenue comes from traffic data transmitted through RDS-TMC, which means many of its LBS capabilities go unused.

Embracing change

Konecny says that this year at CES he sensed car manufacturers were more eager to embrace change. “They’re trying to figure out how to get technologies into vehicles more quickly,” he says. “For the first time, it seemed like everyone from automotive was on board.”

Nonetheless, he still predicts it will take a while for state-of-the-art technologies to go mainstream. “We’re going to see what are perceived as antiquated services hanging around for longer than we’d think,” he says.

Joel Hoffmann, strategic market development manager at Intel’s In-Vehicle Infotainment Group, agrees: “When they’re planning to build a car that’s going to be sold in 2012, they have to start the design effort in 2009 or 2008 or maybe further back. And it’s very difficult to predict what the marketplace is going to be like. So they’re afraid that popular new features will no longer be popular when they finally bring the product to market.”

The safety challenge

Another challenge, indeed the challenge, is safety, Hoffmann says: “The top three issues for automotive are: driver distraction, driver distraction, and driver distraction. This translates to liability problems that can engulf entire positions of market share.”

And while infotainment companies can make safety a priority in the design of their products, it’s the car manufacturers who ultimately own the responsibility to safety test them.

A Harvard study in 2003 found that each year 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,00 accidents involving injuries are caused by motorists talking on cell phones.

Statistics like that have made regulators like Ray LaHood, the US transportation secretary, wary of allowing computers on dashboards. Which, in turn, makes car companies wary of adopting the technology.

For Intel’s part, its Infotainment Group is doing all that it can to make its head units (or rather, the computer chips within those head units) as safety-oriented as possible.

The latest Intel automotive chip performance enables sophisticated multi-modal user interfaces such as natural voice recognition as well as driver-facing cameras that pick up 3D gesturing of the face, hands, and fingertips.

Holding pattern

Nonetheless, Hoffmann says that the industry is still in a bit of a holding pattern. He likens the situation to wireless Internet half a decade ago, when the idea of browsing the Web on a laptop in a public space was still relatively foreign.

Then Intel stepped up and designed a program called Centrino—a combination of embedded hardware that was planted in most laptops at a price customers didn’t notice—and hot spots rose to worldwide prominence. Now the idea of not being connected to the Internet in public is a foreign concept.

Hoffmann says that for a similar paradigm shift to occur in the in-car infotainment industry, a clear leader needs to emerge.

The GENIVI Alliance

Intel has played a pivotal roll in incubating the GENIVI Alliance, a non-profit consisting of more than 50 automotive manufacturers and tier 1 and 2 suppliers. The goal of the alliance is to help the automotive infotainment industry move more quickly in software development by embracing the open source community.

In 2009, the alliance released GENIVI 1.0, an open platform designed to establish shared standards and basic features. Still, Hoffmann says the industry needs a leader to emerge on the automotive side.

“There’s a gap in the connected car environment,” he says. “There’s not yet a single leader that is willing to participate at both the infrastructure as well as on the device level and provide an easy way to connect, a safe way to connect, and a reasonable set of applications that you would be willing to pay to use while you’re traveling. We think that opportunity is out there, and once that end-to-end approach is taken, then the connected car can accelerate.”

Testing the waters

Konecny adds that, when it comes to delivering advanced data services and advanced LBS, it all depends on balance. “It’s a balance between the value to the customer, what the OE is willing to pay, the amount of information we’re willing to supply, and the volume to make it worthwhile," he says. "That’s the balance everyone’s trying to figure out right now.”

Of course,” Konecny says, “once a leader steps forward and says, ‘Yes, we’re an OE, our customers see the value in this product, and we’re going to be able to guarantee X amount of units each year,’ in that situation implementation becomes very easy. For now, everyone is still testing the water. No one’s jumped into the river yet.”

Andrew Tolve is a freelance technology writer and a regular contributor to TU.

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