Telematics and the hybrid approach to content delivery

Already, Ford and Toyota are delivering updates via a USB device. Sticking the USB key into a port is simple; getting the loaded USB devices into the hands of drivers, not so much.

Nvidia is looking at a more robust mechanical strategy: swapping out the infotainment unit's processor. Audi AG is using the Nvidia Tegra 3 mobile processor to power in-vehicle infotainment systems and digital instrument clusters. These systems will use Nvidia's Visual Computing Modules, computer subsystems designed for automotive applications.

"Car makers, year after year, can update just that module with a new processor," says Danny Shapiro, director, automotive division for Nvidia. "Over the life of the car, you can breathe new life into the HMI by updating the processor, with a new set of software and apps that can run on that." (For more on HMIs, download TU’s Human Machine Interface Report 2012 Edition, and see Customizing global telematics HMIs for local markets and Telematics and digital displays: The case for context-aware HMIs.)

This model would likely entail bringing the car into a dealership for the update, Shapiro thinks, although some auto makers might choose to make it available to customers who like to tinker.

Smartphone or embedded?

Even for models with embedded modems, there's a balancing act involved in deciding whether to send over-the-air updates, according to Rick Kreifeld, vice president global automotive research and innovation at Harman International. Factors include the cost of data transmissions, bandwidth, modem power and reliability of signal.

On the one hand, he says, using cell-phone connectivity eliminates the need for another data plan for the car. On the other, an embedded modem usually has better data rates and more bandwidth.

The embedded modem has plenty of power, because it can draw from the car's systems; and it can use the rooftop antenna for a more reliable connection. Yet cell phone towers are optimized for reception from a fixed point, not a rapidly moving vehicle. And so it goes.

Another factor is how rapidly the OEM would like to update infotainment content and services.

"A lot of informational services, like parking spot finders and gas station prices, are suited to the application framework," Kreifeld says. “Streaming audio works better via cloud service, so that you can deal with regionalization.”

Finally, OEMs need to understand the optimal time to perform updates, which varies among different applications. Certainly, when the car is parked at home is the simplest technically and likely the most economical, Kreifeld thinks, especially if it could connect to the home wifi via an embedded wifi hotspot.

The most complex option is over-the-air updates; letting the updates queue up and delivering them when the car is idle in the garage makes this approach more manageable. (For more on smartphones, data and updates, see Special report: Telematics and apps.)

Controlled openness

Still another issue in the update decision process is the concern for safety. Continental Automotive Systems' AutoLinQ has moved away from the app store model for this reason, according to Brian Droessler, vice president of strategy and portfolio, infotainment and connectivity for Continental Automotive Systems.

"We started it with the concept of downloadable apps, taking a page borrowed from the iPhone and Android," Droessler says. That was in part because this was easy to demo and test. In the past two years, he says, "Our customers are looking for much more controlled openness. Wide-open Android systems are not quite ready for prime time."

This hybrid approach has its own demands, not least the need for automotive systems to work with many different operating systems and devices. Droessler points out that innovation in mobile devices is happening ten times faster than in the car. "Our continuing focus on interoperability with as many mobile phones as possible is huge," he says.

This is a near-term problem according to Leo McCloskey, vice president of marketing for Airbiquity. But in the near-term, it is indeed huge.

Not only are there Apple iOS and many implementations of Android, but Windows Phone and BlackBerry will also hang on. "So, we have to integrate to four operating systems. This is an intensive window of five to seven years, with a long tail of maybe 10 years after that, until the app craze becomes small enough and HTML5 becomes dominant."

While the hybrid model will continue to be used in the automotive industry, various car models will tend toward one solution or another, according to Kreifeld. In the short term, "You want that flexibility as the market evolves."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on smartphones, data and updates, 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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