The Smartphone: Friend or Foe of In-car Infotainment?

The Smartphone: Friend or Foe of In-car Infotainment?

All of which begs the question of whether smartphones preclude the need for in-car infotainment systems. After all, if we can mount iPhones or Nexus Ones on our dashboards, why pay for a second computer embedded in our cars?

Accelerating infotainment

The question, while justified, doesn’t frighten those in the in-car infotainment industry. In fact, many experts welcome the smartphone as a technology that can accelerate user comfort with features like personal navigation, points of interest, and other location-based services and thus help transition the public toward cars fully outfitted with state-of-the-art infotainment systems.

“Personal navigation devices (PNDs) and now smartphone navigation applications have gone a long way to make consumers comfortable with turn-by-turn navigation as a utility,” says Roger Jollis, director OEM and mobile marketing, Garmin. “Five years ago, such systems may have been seen as an expensive curiosity. Many people simply downloaded a route list from online services like Mapquest or Google Maps. But now, with the commoditization of these categories, consumers have gained experience and they understand the utility of these devices.”

Lower cost navigation

Jollis says that because in-car infotainment systems have traditionally been so expensive, the automotive industry to date has lost out on the commoditization of navigation.

But that’s all changed in the past year or two, with the automotive industry now eager to bring lower cost navigation solutions to market.

Jollis says that the combination of these lower costs and familiarity via smartphones and PNDs will help consumers conclude that in-dash solutions offer more convenience, functionality, and integration with the vehicle.

“While the approach of connecting mobile phones to vehicles might seem compelling, the long-term costs involved in testing and supporting new devices might not make it viable for long,” says Jollis.

“Automakers are working with suppliers to bring the cost of in-vehicle infotainment systems down to a more affordable point,” he continues. “At that point, and only for a short time, the only role for the mobile phone will be to provide a data pipe. But as automakers include embedded connectivity, the complexity of using a mobile phone as a tethered data pipe will also lose its place in the automotive world.”

Consumer and automotive convergence

Hakan Kostepen, director of product strategy and innovation at the Panasonic Automotive Systems Company, agrees that the smartphone and in-car infotainment industries can co-exist agreeably.

“We embrace the opportunity of consumer electronics’ and automotive infotainment electronics’ convergence,” Kostepen says. “As a consumer electronics company, Panasonic welcomes this trend to serve our customers with total-life solutions, which are driven by actual consumer lifestyles and needs. There is no question that mobile emerging devices are an important part of the consumer needs.”

Complementary opportunities

Jörg Brakensiek, a principle member of the research staff at the Nokia Research Center, echoes that sentiment. “Smartphones are not a threat to in-car infotainment systems,” he says. “They offer consumers the opportunity to access valued services even in cars that do not have sophisticated in-car infotainment, especially in lower- to mid-range vehicles. So this can be seen as a complementary opportunity in addition to in-car offerings.”

While Nokia sells numerous smartphones, it also has played an active role in forming the GENIVI alliance, a coalition of auto firms, suppliers, and technology providers looking to streamline the development and support of in-vehicle infotainment products and services.

The GENIVI alliance

GENIVI’s goal is to create a reusable, open source IVI platform that delivers benefits like faster speed to market, reductions in production costs, and increased options for integrating and customizing solutions.

As such solutions become more prevalent, Brakensiek believes it will be critical to make smartphones interoperate with in-car infotainment systems.

“Mobile devices interoperating with cars is not a question of if but when,” Brakensiek says. “Nokia is already actively working with others in the industry to make it happen. [We have] a vibrant, open development community with support through Forum Nokia and availability of software development tools and more.”

Consistent systems

One advantage the smartphone enjoys over in-car infotainment systems is its short lifespan—on average nine to 18 months—that enables phones to change quickly and easily adopt new applications and advances, like 4G connectivity.

And yet many in the infotainment industry say this malleability helps the slower infotainment industry, first because it sparks ideas and sets goals for new applications to embed in the vehicle, and second because it means it’s very difficult for a car—which generally lasts six to seven years, if not longer—to have the appropriate user interface for the mobile phone.

Indeed, each time smartphones race forward, they require a new HMI setting in a car, which makes it far more sensible to have a consistent, in-car infotainment system instead. That is, if it’s cost-effective and intuitive.

More natural interaction

“Where today it may take a PhD to figure out some infotainment systems, we will be moving to a world where user interfaces are simplified,” Jollis predicts. “Users are demanding this. The improvement in voice recognition technologies will allow drivers and passengers to interact with systems in a more natural way. The end goal will be to provide the information required without causing a distraction to the driver.”

As for 4G, Jollis says, “There is never going to be enough mobile bandwidth to accommodate all the new applications, content, and connected devices. So new network technologies (See ‘Making Sense of New Wireless Technology []) will only bring the cost and availability of broadband mobile connectivity down. There are so many new services that can be offered when the data pipe is enlarged and the associated business model provides an attractive value.”

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

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