Telematics, smartphones and the future of connected infotainment

Telematics, smartphones and the future of connected infotainment

Driven by the need to speed innovation and reduce development costs of in-car applications, the car industry is rapidly shifting focus from fully embedded infotainment solutions to ones that will integrate the smartphone and the richness of its applications.

“We are in a situation where almost everybody has a smartphone, and if they don’t, maybe next year they will have one,” says Dominique Bonte, group director for telematics and navigation with ABI Research, a technology market intelligence agency.

“There is no doubt that one way or another smartphones and smartphone apps will play a very big role in the whole connected car environment.”

A number of car infotainment systems already rely on the smartphone for connectivity. But most still run custom-built applications that are both expensive to produce and hard to upgrade once they ship with the vehicle.

Add to that the car industry’s traditionally long lead times of two to three years, and you are almost guaranteed a product that is obsolete by the time it hits the dealer lot.

The smartphone can change all that, industry insiders say. It not only comes with a wealth of applications and a vast developer community, but it also has the capacity to serve as an easily upgradable operating platform, if properly integrated with the car’s head unit.

(For more on smartphones, see Six reasons the smartphone is key to auto telematics; to learn more about smartphone integration, read TU’s In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report.)


Wanted: Common integration standards

To be sure, it’s still early days. Common integration standards are only beginning to take shape. And problems with driver distraction mean that most applications will have to be adapted before they can be used in the car.

“It’s not that you use the same app in the same way,” Bonte says. “They need to be modified for the car. You start driving, they switch to a simpler interface with less functionality.

Certain functions will be blocked because it’s too dangerous to drive. [You will] use text to speech a lot.”

At least two integration standards are gaining traction, one a proprietary solution by Ford, another an attempt at an industry-wide standard called MirrorLink (previously known as Terminal Mode).

And the industry is also making progress in finding less distracting ways of operating smartphone apps in the car, increasingly tapping voice recognition and optimizing the use of the car’s built-in controls.

(For more on voice recognition, see Telematics and voice recognition: Overcoming the tech challenges and Can voice recognition make telematics services safer?)

There are already at least 10,000 car-related applications on Apple’s App Store and nearly as many on Android Market, according to Egil Juliussen, principal analyst & fellow for automotive research with IHS iSuppli.

And the number of global users of telematics smartphone applications is expected to go through the roof over the next five years, increasing from this year’s 3.2 million to 129 million by 2016, according to ABI Research.

(Global shipments of connected infotainment systems that are either embedded or feature an important embedded component will also jump from today’s three million to almost 28 million by 2016, according to ABI Research.)

“It will be more complex to develop apps,” Bonte says. “But it opens up a much bigger market.”


Ford’s AppLink

Ford is leading the way in smartphone integration with AppLink, a program that runs on its Sync infotainment system and lets smartphone users control their applications through the car’s display, voice engine and steering wheel controls.

All they need to do is plug in their phone via a USB cable. Launched last year, AppLink is currently available on 10 vehicles for the model year 2012, including Ford Fiesta, Fusion, Mustang and F-150.

With AppLink, a driver can access Pandora Internet radio on his smartphone by simply pressing the voice button under the steering wheel and saying “Mobile apps” and then “Pandora.” He can also use his voice to change stations and even give a song a “thumbs-up”.

Besides Pandora, AppLink currently supports Stitcher, iHeartRadio and Orangatame OpenBeak for listening to Twitter updates. More applications are in the process of being adapted.

Doug VanDagens, global director of connected services for Ford, would not say which, but the company is currently working with over 3,000 developers, having distributed more than 400 software development kits.


The Car Connectivity Consortium’s MirrorLink

Another approach is MirrorLink, an initiative of the Car Connectivity Consortium, an alliance whose 31 members represent roughly 60% of global market share in automotive and smart phone industries.

Like Ford’s AppLink, MirrorLink allows smartphone apps to be shown on the car display and accessed through the car’s built-in controls. And although it lacks Ford’s sophisticated voice engine, it does attempt to create an industry-wide standard for building and certifying car-integrated smartphone applications.

Entering the market in November, MirrorLink has early backing from Alpine, which recently announced the first MirrorLink-compatible after-market head unit, and Nokia, which will support MirroLink in Symbian Belle and nine mobile devices.

“Apple made it easy for developers to put their apps onto the phone and easy for consumers to discover those apps and automatically download them,” says Alfred Tom, Car Connectivity Consortium’s ecosystem workgroup chair.

“We are trying to do the same thing. We are trying to make it very easy for developers to develop for vehicles.”

The industry is also paying close attention to iPhone 4S’s new speech recognition software. “The speech recognition part of that is a phenomenally big improvement on what we already had,” says Juliussen of IHS iSuppli.

“So you can attack the problem from the smartphone as well, though the car use was perhaps secondary. The primary was to make speech interface on the iPhone useful.”

According to Bonte of ABI Research, navigation will lead the way in connected infotainment applications in the near future, followed by Internet radio, in-car Wi-Fi and social media integration.

The fact that social media integration came in last in ABI’s surveys surprised Bonte, but he believes it will become more prominent once people get used to things like listening to Facebook updates instead of reading them.

“I think there is a lot of awareness building to be done, so we might see a different ranking one, two, three years down the line when social [media] integration becomes a lot more important,” Bonte says.


Adapting to drivers

Navigation systems of the future will incorporate far more traffic information, according to Juliussen: “When you commute somewhere in the morning and in the evening, you don’t care about turn by turn navigation. You want to know which route should I take, what time should I leave.”

And these systems may even start adapting to drivers. “Older people definitely don’t like making left turns” because of having to cross against oncoming traffic, says Paul Venhovens, professor and chair for automotive systems integration at the International Center for Automotive Research, Clemson University.

“If the vehicle knows that I am an older person, the navigation system could basically have the ability to make three right turns rather than one left turn.”

Insurance telematics is another growth industry, helping drivers better manage their insurance premiums and making it possible for insurers to introduce new business models based on “Pay-per-use” or “Pay-as-you-drive.”

The industry leader, Italy’s Octo Telematics, is already working with more than 30 insurance companies, and more than 500,000 cars in its home state are already equipped with some form of insurance telematics.

(For exclusive business insights into the global UBI market, read TU’s report Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.)

Parking telematics, another area of interest, promises to help drivers find an empty parking space or even reserve one. A number of smartphone applications already cover large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Boston and Seattle.

One of them,, so far in beta mode, goes as far as to allow people to auction off a spot they are leaving to those looking for one.

But garage ownership is too fragmented for parking telematics solutions to become widespread any time soon. “It’s emerging, but still it’s going to be three to five years before that’s going to be prevalent,” Juliussen says.

In fact, the smartphone may be well on its way to replacing the common car key altogether. It is already being used to run a variety of monitored telematics solutions that can remotely lock/unlock the car, check vehicle registration or activate the horn and lights to make the vehicle stand out in a large parking lot.

Advances in smartphone integration are likely to change the way in-car telematics systems are built, but they will not eliminate them altogether, according to Bonte, who expects all in-car applications to ultimately converge around a “triangle of cloud, smartphone and embedded function.”

“The way forward is to combine all three components,” he says. “A system just working on a smartphone will not be reliable, convenient and safe enough to use. A system only based on cloud-based services will also not be reliable enough.

And a system only based on an embedded head unit will lack the flexibility, innovation, the richness of applications for smartphones in applications stores.”

Jan Stojaspal is a regular contributor to TU.
For more all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s other key players at Telematics Munich 2011 on November 9-10 and Content & Apps for Automotive USA 2011 on Nov 29-30 in San Diego.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *