Advancements are being made in the world of personal media faster than the auto companies can keep up. However, many new facets of in-vehicle technology are trying their hardest, and succeeding.
Anyone paying attention for the last several years has probably noticed that early January has become exceptionally busy for the automotive community. Similar technologies revealed at the Detroit Auto Show were shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Between the automotive aftermarket, phone companies and what’s offered by automakers themselves, the car has practically become a consumer electronics device. Whether you’re in the market for a new ride, or just updating what you have, you now have countless choices for staying connected on the road.
Where It All Began and Where it May End Up, Embedded Telematics
The connected car movement kicked off with the introduction of General Motors’ OnStar system in the mid-1990s. These first embedded telematics systems feature embedded cellular radios that can communicate through call centers without connecting a separate phone. After a free introductory period when the car is purchased, these systems require a monthly service fee. The downside of embedded systems including telematics is the inevitability of becoming obsolete when wireless technology moves beyond what was built into the car.
The always-on connection enables features such as remote vehicle locking and unlocking, stolen vehicle slowdown and recovery, geofencing for young drivers and remote diagnostics. One key feature of embedded systems is automatic accident notification that alerts emergency responders when the airbags deploy.
Plug-in vehicles are providing a new opportunity for embedded systems that connect to mobile apps. Drivers of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles can use smartphone apps to check the charge state of the battery, make sure it’s plugged in, pre-cool or warm the cabin and find charging stations.
Bring Your Own Connection and Media
The growth of digital media players and smartphones over the past decade demonstrated to carmakers and aftermarket audio manufacturers that the automotive development cycle is too slow to keep pace with consumer electronics. In 2007, Ford SYNC introduced a new approach that let drivers provide their own connection and media that could be utilized through an easy to set up connection.
Bring your own (BYO) connection or media lets drivers personalize their in-car experience and take advantage of embedded telematics without incurring any monthly service fees. Virtually every new vehicle on the market today has at least an auxiliary audio connector, and most also have built-in wireless Bluetooth and USB ports that enable hands-free calling and playback of music files stored on portable devices.
Several BYO systems including SYNC AppLink, Chevrolet MyLink and Toyota Entune enable drivers to control smartphone apps directly through the vehicle without touching the phone. Future systems will likely follow the lead of the entry-level MyLink in the Chevy Spark and Sonic by using a “dumb” terminal display in the dash to mirror the phone and rely on the mobile device for all its smarts.
Aftermarket Head Units
Cars that came from the factory without a telematics or BYO connection system can now be upgraded to take advantage of the latest technology through aftermarket audio head units.
Most aftermarket receivers now include auxiliary inputs and often USB ports to connect media players, phones and even flash memory drives to play audio tracks. Many will also play MP3 files on compact disks in addition to standard audio CDs.
Several manufacturers are now offering head units that can connect to smartphones and control apps through a touch screen or voice controls. The Pioneer AppRadio series and the Parrot Asteroid, both feature 7-inch touchscreens. Pioneer, along with other units such as Sony, JVC and Alpine use a standard called MirrorLink to display the output from compatible apps as if the phone was embedded in the dash. The Asteroid actually runs Android and compatible apps directly as well as streaming media from connected devices.
The open-source SmartphoneLink from the non-profit industry group GENIVI Alliance will soon provide another means of connecting and using apps on the road. In February 2013, Ford contributed the source code for SYNC AppLink to the project with the goal of providing developers with a common interface that will work with most if not all audio systems.
Mobile Apps for the Road
An advantage of the BYO media/connection approach is the ability to personalize the in-car experience. Instead of limited radio programming or juggling CDs, drivers can now listen to almost anything they want, wherever they want thanks to streaming media apps.
Music fans can program their own radio stations with a vast array of free and paid streaming services including Pandora, Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody and more. Favorite audiobooks from Audible or podcasts on virtually every subject using Stitcher, BeyondPod or Downcast can keep you entertained and informed on the road. When it’s time for some nourishment, drivers can make a quick dinner reservation with OpenTable.
Favorite stations are available through apps like iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio, NPR News and the hundreds (if not thousands) of individual station apps. Sports fans can tune into out-of-market games, interviews, highlights and analysis using the MLB at Bat, NBA Game Time and NHL GameCenter apps.
Streaming apps can be used with any audio system through an auxiliary audio input, although a passenger should control the app when the car is moving. BYO connection systems from Ford, GM, Toyota, BMW and others can launch and control many of these apps through the radio buttons or using voice commands without touching the phone. Some systems like Cadillac CUE have even opened developer programs that let apps be ported and installed directly in the system without having a phone connected.
Hands-free Control and Voice Recognition
Legitimate concerns about driver distraction has prompted manufacturers and technology companies to increase emphasis on using voice commands to manage the myriad functions available in new cars, while also keeping hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
Most vehicles with connectivity beyond an auxiliary port have some degree of voice recognition built-in with the majority of these using technology from Nuance. Many of these including Ford SYNC and Chevrolet MyLink are also augmented by databases from Gracenote which include phonetic pronunciations and artist nicknames to help improve recognition when requesting music to play.
Vehicles are now beginning to offer voice pass-through systems that send commands from the microphone to a connected smartphone using Apple’s Siri or Google’s Voice Actions. These systems offer potentially improved recognition and additional functionality beyond the built-in capabilities. Eventually, voice pass-through will probably become the standard with local recognition being used only as a backup.
SYNC®. SAY THE WORD.
SYNC® with MyFord and SYNC® with MyFord Touch® are all about staying in touch, staying entertained, staying informed and staying reassured. All with simple voice commands. Never miss a phone call with hands-free calling. Have incoming text messages read aloud to you. Browse and play whatever you want to hear from your audio library with simple voice commands. And get the peace of mind that comes with 911 Assist®, which can call for help if you’re in an accident in which the airbag deploys.
The days of paper road maps are largely behind us as virtually everyone now carries a device capable of determining their location anywhere on the planet. Most new vehicles have built-in GPS receivers to power in-dash navigation systems, embedded telematics, or bring your own (BYO) connection systems.
In-dash navigation remains available as an option, although it is usually the most costly solution, with the most limited point of interest data (POI) and outdated maps. Even without a navigation screen, telematics and BYO solutions like OnStar and SYNC can receive a directions list over the cellular connection. Using the audio and instrument cluster for voice and visual prompts, the GPS can guide you to your destination.
Smartphones and personal navigation devices (PNDs) made by companies like Tom-Tom and Garmin offer a flexible and cost-effective solution. PNDs lost popularity after the 2009 introduction of turn-by-turn directions in the Android version of Google Maps, but they still offer a good alternative for those that don’t want to pay for a smartphone data plan or live in areas with spotty data coverage. The PNDs store map data locally so users don’t have to worry about getting lost if they lose cellular connectivity.
Smartphone-based navigation using apps from Google, Apple, Nokia, Waze and even the traditional PND makers have the advantage of up to date maps, real-time traffic data and much more extensive POI listings. Some apps even include map data stored on the phone so you can find your way home even with zero bars of coverage.
Keeping the Passengers Entertained
One of the biggest potential distractions for drivers are the young passengers in the back seat. The now traditional DVD rear seat entertainment systems is one solution for keeping the kids occupied, but it still raises the specter of arguments over what to watch.
Media players, smartphones and tablets make it possible for everyone to have their own screen for gaming, movies or music. Portable hotspots like the MiFi or smartphones with hotspot apps let everyone in the vehicle share a mobile broadband connection for media streaming or web browsing. Ford vehicles with MyFord Touch include a built-in WiFi hotspot that can be enabled by plugging a 3G/4G modem into the USB port.
Some manufacturers, including Chrysler, offer a built-in hotspot that includes a modem so nothing else needs to be connected to give every passenger their own connection to the net, while General Motors and Audi have announced plans to integrate 4G LTE into vehicles for 2014.
Power to the People
Ubiquitous connectivity is great as long as the batteries in all of those devices hold up so power outlets have become more important than ever. Many vehicles now include anywhere from two to four 12-volt power ports distributed between the front and rear of the cabin. While the more traditional outlets require adapters for charging, the USB ports available in most newer vehicles can be used directly for charging portable devices.
At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, Chevrolet showed off a Volt with Powermat wireless charging system installed in the console, but has yet to offer it in production. The 2013 Toyota Avalon and 2014 Jeep Cherokee are the first vehicles to offer factory-installed wireless chargers. Phones that support the Qi charging standard including Nokia’s Lumias, Google’s Nexus 4 and others can be juiced up by simply placing them on the pad in the center console.
What does the future hold for in-vehicle technology? Only the creative minds at the leading automakers know, but for sure, it will be something to look forward to.
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