Smartphone’s Affect on Future Infotainment

In 2011, Toyota President Akio Toyoda famously said his company would be producing cars that were smartphones on wheels.

Since then, this analogy has been repeated by several auto executives, such as former Daimler board chairman Dieter Zetsche and Volkswagen brand chief Martin Winterkorn, who said in 2015 that Volkswagens would be “smartphones on wheels” by 2020. However, to what extent will, and should, carmakers use the smartphone as a template for the in-car experience they offer to consumers and how much can or should they differentiate their brands if all brands work from the same template?

In-car infotainment should not work differently than the smartphone does, said Adam Kozłowski, head of automotive research and development at Grape Up. “As long as the infotainment stays driver-centric and does not feel overcomplicated to use while driving, the ‘smartfication’ of infotainment, or even the whole car through the SDV [software defined vehicles] concept, is the way to go.” He pointed at in-vehicle navigation systems with pinch-to-zoom features as an example, noting: “It is intuitive because we are used to it on our smartphones. If OEMs will try to differentiate and try to make the infotainment more ‘modern’ just to differentiate, without focusing on user experience, it will be a failure.”

Chris Ludwig, vice-president EPIC user experience at Harman Automotive, agrees. “Today, consumers expect their vehicles to mirror their technology habits outside the car with experiences that are hyper-personalized and deliver new levels of connectivity, productivity, and safety,” he said. “This elevated expectation actually presents an incredible opportunity for the industry to bring consumer-electronics- level connectivity, content and features into the car, optimized for the car.”

However, while he said that “drivers want their vehicle systems to become an extension of their smartphone experience, with the same speed, responsiveness, and functionality,” Ludwig noted that because the car offers a different environment than the smartphone, it requires a different kind of interaction. “Drivers must be able to interact with their content and features in a way that keeps their focus on the road, while passengers might want a more immersive, individualized experience,” necessitating “sound zone technology” to personalize the experience of each of the occupants.

Or, as Kozłowski put it: “The main focus should be the user experience, not to blindly follow smartphones, but to merge existing findings on what works best for drivers and what works best on smartphones.” He believes that the most important infotainment systems currently offer a touch-screen experience similar to that of smartphones, the app store, customization and the personal assistant with voice control. “Having similar UX and an ability to customize the look and feel by adding new applications, or changing colors, is crucial,” he said. “The driver should feel that the infotainment is designed specifically for his comfort and needs and also that it can be configured to use his favorite services, whether Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal or YouTube. Those parts of the smartphone experience are crucial.”

In fact, the in-vehicle experience is becoming an important selling point as more consumers who grew up on smartphones enter the car market and purchase an automobile based on the features of its infotainment system in the same way they chose a smartphone based on its features. Citing a report by the EPM Advisory Council, Ludwig said this trend is growing and “marks a notable shift from consumers that used to shop for vehicles with the highest horsepower or biggest brand name. Automotive companies must embrace this change or risk losing business opportunities to competitors”.

With auto manufacturers apparently in thrall to the smartphone, the problem becomes one of brand differentiation via the infotainment system. Kozłowski believes that the solution is simply to make it better. “The way the Android Automotive OS is designed promotes building an application which works on any car brand, the same way an Android application works on any Android smartphone. For CarPlay we have yet to see. This makes it harder to differentiate.”

He added that carmakers who try to build their own infotainment OS will be running a big risk. “There is no way for OEMs to compete directly with services like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, as they just can’t spend the same amount of money on navigation system as Google. So, they have to accommodate both those services as seamlessly as possible and leverage this integration to make their infotainment better, for example, by showing the navigation hints on HUD.”

Ludwig has a slightly different view. “If carmakers make no effort to customize their infotainment system and create notable and helpful tools that are unique to their system, they will miss out on a significant opportunity to create a customer for life,” he cautioned. “That being said, only when a customized solution has a true value-add should it be utilized.”


One comment

  1. Avatar Simon Morris 24th October 2022 @ 11:33 pm

    Interesting article – there is a Finnish tech firm called Jolla that has been delivering a middleware product to automotive OEMs and Tier-1s called AppSupport that addresses this cockpit infotainment design challenge for OEMs/Tier-1s.

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