Six reasons the smartphone is key to auto telematics

Six reasons the smartphone is key to auto telematics

In future, connected cars may not each have an embedded modem and a data plan. The way the market is developing, smartphones could become better integrated into the car and function as the prime conduit for information, services, and connectivity. Here’s why:

1. It's cheaper for OEMs to leverage smartphone development
“The proliferation of smartphones has interrupted traditional telematics development,” says Mark Boyadjis, Americas senior analyst and manager, automotive, for IHS iSuppli. “It’s maybe taken some revenue potential away, but at same time, it’s enabling so much more in the car in a cost-effective method.”

That doesn’t mean the traditional telematics industry is losing out, Boyadjis adds, pointing to how OnStar has worked with GM for OnStar MyLink. MyLink enables audio streaming and wireless control of the cell phone, adding a larger graphical screen and keeping the phone stowed. Moreover, automakers would rather not pay to license apps like Pandora. Instead, let drivers bring them in on their phones at no additional cost.

2. Cell phone data plans are cheaper for consumers—for now

Sending infotainment applications directly to OnStar would require a separate data plan, possibly doubling consumers’ connectivity costs. But “if you have a data plan in your pocket,” says Boyadjis, “it’s easier and more cost-effective to use that.” Of course, mobile network operators may push back if they find their all-you-can-eat data plans sucked dry by the additional drain of in-car apps, just as AT&T had to stop offering unlimited data for the iPhone.

3. EVs demand remote access

Electric vehicles are driving excitement about the connected car because there’s so much mission-critical information surrounding the state of charge. With charging taking several hours, EV drivers will want to be able to check on the state of charge while they’re doing more interesting or productive things. (For more on charging, see ‘Telematics and EVs: Things to do while charging’.) The smartphone will provide that crucial link between mobile driver and plugged-in car.

Frost & Sullivan analyst Veerender Kaul says that’s only the beginning. With utility companies installing smart meters and moving to smart grids, people will expect to manage their energy use holistically. From remotely starting the car’s charge as you crawl into bed, he says, “You’ll also network your smartphone with some of your home appliances, so you can start your washer and dryer during off-peak times. Given how prevalent and widely used smartphones are, it seems to be the most logical point of convergence for these devices. Basically, your smartphone will be the remote control for everything.” (For more on smart grids, see ‘Telematics and the cloud: Building the business case’ and ‘Telematics and smart grids: The business opportunity’.)

4. We love our gadgets

There’s also a sociological reason why infotainment may never completely migrate to the car, according to Andrew Osis, CEO of Poynt, a provider of location-aware smartphone apps. “People have a very emotional relationship with their phone that’s unlike anything else,” he says. “A car is a means of transportation and independence; a phone is your connection to the world. When you get into your car, that relationship doesn’t get suspended.”

Instead of thinking of the phone as a conduit to the car’s embedded systems, Osis thinks the car will come to be seen as an extension of the phone: “People having multiple places to store and access information is too difficult. That’s the attraction of the mobile experience—You can manage your experience and information wherever you are and don’t have to redo it somewhere else.”

5. Smartphones contain your digital identity

Kal Gyimesi, global automotive leader for the IBM Institute for Business Value, would like to see this concept taken even further, with the smartphone becoming a portable identity that lets you seamlessly move among different vehicles or transportation modes. As auto interiors become loaded with electronics and connected to infotainment services, more and more personalization will be possible. Why should you have to re-personalize each vehicle? “Imagine being able to not just worry about a specific car but to be able to move that capability with you from vehicle to vehicle,” Gyimesi says. “You can take your environment with you.” (For more on personalization, see ‘How to customize telematics to meet consumer preferences’.)

Gyimesi sees this as a potential differentiator for auto OEMs, which might let you buy the whole brand instead of having to choose between a sporty coupe and a pickup. Customers could buy access to the entire portfolio of vehicles, carrying their digital authentication along with their customization preferences. At its Electronics Research Lab (ERL), Volkswagen is testing dashboard prototypes with electronic displays instead of physical dials that shift to show the most relevant information. This could easily be extended to show the info that’s most relevant or interesting to an individual.

6. Innovation is faster in the smartphone world

OEMs are working on speeding up their product cycles, but they’re still glacially slow compared to mobile app development. Some mobile apps, such as navigation and traffic, are good enough to obviate the need for an in-car system. In labs, garages, and cubicle farms around the planet, new mobile apps are proliferating like yeast cultures.

Even at Volkswagen’s ERL, a hotbed of creativity for the connected car, they’re building smartphone apps, including one for picture navigation. You take a photo and upload it to the car, via an Internet connection or by plugging in the SDK card, and the vehicle reads the location info overlaid by the phone on the photo to take you to that destination.

Of course, there will always be tension between coolness and safety, with the debate about driver distraction and in-car use of apps still simmering. “Volkswagen is trying to determine what is the best solution,” says Chuhee Lee, head of infotainment at the ERL. “The phone contains a lot of valuable information about the person, including what infotainment services you like. But the car’s systems need to act as the switchboard to control applications to improve safety, reduce distraction, and make things efficient.”

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s thought leaders at Telematics Detroit 2011 in Novi, MI on June 8 and 9.

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