The seamless integration of personal communication/mobility between the home and car is the next big issue facing the automotive world, writes Vanessa Scholfield.
The challenge is not just impacting on the automotive sector, but is attracting the attention of infotainment suppliers, telecoms providers, consumer electronics companies, vehicle manufacturers and systems integrators alike. While the obvious question is how will all these players and their expertise mesh together to provide the ultimate solution, what is not in question is the fact that tomorrow’s passenger cars need to embrace digital technology and focus on people-centric mobility systems. What remains to be seen is just how the individual companies involved will approach this significant development and who will emerge as the major players that will influence how personal connectivity/mobility is delivered both at home and in the car of the future.
New players enter the fray
Already we are seeing new, non-automotive service and hardware providers enter the market with an array of different technologies and approaches that are greatly influenced by what is going on in the consumer/mobile electronics sphere. The recent upsurge in interest in smartphones and the way they are beginning to shape people’s lives being a good example.
The overwhelming success of the Apple iPhone has set the benchmark and many others have followed. Having the ability to take your personal nomadic device (PND) and connect it to your car is becoming a customer requirement rather than merely a desirable option. At the recent Paris Motor Show, it was clear to see just how important seamless personal connectivity is for vehicle manufacturers. Even in the lower market segments car manufacturers are offering customers the ability to plug their smartphone into the car and personalise their infotainment experience. As an example of just how widespread the influence of the smartphone has become, one only need look at Opel which offers this in the Adam, its newly launched emerging fun/fashion segment vehicle positioned to compete against the Fiat 500. Using a USB connection the iPhone or smartphone can be instantly connected with the vehicle’s operating system and linked to a visual display screen located in the dashboard. In this way the driver can listen to his/her chosen form of entertainment, plan a route at home and download it into the car, make phone calls and manage time in the vehicle in a way that suits his/her lifestyle.
Embedded or brought in services?
The debate over the way in which connectivity will be enabled within the car is on-going and will doubtless continue for some years to come. The choice for the vehicle manufacturers is whether to go for an embedded system with a SIM and built-in modem or to choose the brought in option. The latter involves either a built in modem and brought in SIM, or both being brought in to the car. This option has been gaining ground in recent times and the rapid popularity of the smartphone has displaced the traditional mobile phone to a large extent. Consumers can now enjoy access to the internet, social media and other applications while in the car. Looking into the future, cloud computer services will gain traction with drivers as they seek dynamic selection of the server in real time, based on the expanding variety of apps becoming available in the car.
Plugging a smartphone into the car will not be a favoured solution for all consumers/drivers and in the main this approach will be favoured in the mid and lower segment vehicles. Drivers of premium and high-end cars will likely want an integrated user experience.
Embedded systems on the other hand are more likely to be used for safety critical services such as the e-call emergency call service and vehicle diagnostics. They are also attractive to the vehicle manufacturers as it will enable them to maintain control over the customer in a way in which is not the case with a smartphone. In practice, we expect hybrid systems to be the preferred route in the short to medium term.
Touch screens are becoming the norm
The Human Machine Interface (HMI) provides vehicle manufacturers with the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition and to offer user friendly systems that mirror those found on today’s mobile phones and tablets. The first real breakthrough came with the touchscreen in PNDs which rapidly found favour in other consumer devices such as iPad’s and other tablet computers. These in turn have influenced the way in which consumers require access to personal mobility services when inside the car.
Today, touch screens have migrated to the passenger car and more car companies offer this technology since it is seen to enable customisation and flexibility in the provision of information and user inputs. In the luxury and premium segments touch screens are being offered in conjunction with rotary dials and knobs. This combined approach is favoured by the German manufacturers in particular, and the likes of BMW and Mercedes offer their in-house suite of infotainment and services in this way. Audi has introduced a touch pad incorporating handwriting recognition in its A8 luxury model. For these manufacturers clearly the HMI will be used as a product differentiator.
Mass market vehicle manufacturers will all be keen to offer touch screen technology in their best selling model lines and ultimately to offer it in some shape or form across their entire vehicle ranges. Larger touch screens are popular in mass market vehicles with 6-8 inch screens rapidly becoming the norm.
Driver distraction is a major concern
Driver distraction, however, is a major issue confronting drivers, vehicle manufacturers and legislators alike. The proliferation of devices within the vehicle and the ever increasing complexity of managing driver information has led the road safety lobby and legislators to take a closer look at the implications of driver distraction and its causes. Among the areas being investigated is the use of smartphones and PNDs within the vehicle as well as touch screens that require the driver to glance at the screen while driving. Ford has gone some way to addressing this with its MyFord touch. This has an 8-inch screen located in the centre console and two smaller screens located adjacent to the speedometer in the dashboard.
Using a combination of speech recognition and five-way controllers on the steering wheel, Ford is striving to reduce and minimise the driver distraction of Ford Sync. Tactile feedback from the touch screen is also seen as a useful attribute and is increasingly seen as a must for the HMI. It gives the user comfort in the knowledge that the service has been activated and reduces the number of times a driver feels the need to glance at the screen. However, these systems are high cost at present and are likely to be restricted to high-end vehicles for the foreseeable future. One such system is used in Cadillac’s Cue and the technology is expected to roll out over more GM models in the future.
Insurance companies are also becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of accidents that can be attributed to distracted drivers and usage-based insurance is emerging as a whole new industry in its own right. Driver behaviour apps are being developed and trialled which measure the driving habits, braking and acceleration style and cornering. Using telephones and touch screens while on the go is a common cause for concern and steps are being taken by the car companies to limit what the driver can do while the vehicle is moving. Legislation in this regard cannot be far off.
Apple and Google to battle over car connectivity
Apple recently announced that it has signed deals with eight vehicle manufacturers to integrate Siri voice control technology into cars. Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota are thought to be among those that have signed up. This move is being seen as something of a sea-change for Apple whose involvement with the automotive sector has hitherto been seen as rather limited. Apple’s system will only work with Apple products and relies upon Siri’s cloud computing interaction to respond to customer requests as per the iPhone and iPad.
Integrating iPads or tablets in the vehicle cockpit as the main infotainment interface is being assessed by most vehicle manufacturers. Large, interactive and flexible screens in vehicles are gaining momentum. There are already examples, such as the Tesla S, where such screens are in use. Using an iPad, for example, as a central dashboard offers all the new ideas that smartphones and iPads embody while at the same time, potentially, helping to de-clutter the dashboard itself. Tablets and iPads also lend themselves to the provision of rear seat entertainment and open up endless possibilities with regard to interacting with passengers as well as the driver.
Where next for Apple?
Many in the industry think Apple’s Siri is just the first move by Apple which is thought to be considering an automotive platform. Keeping consumers within its ecosystem is key for Apple and the screen HMI in the passenger car is one area where Apple could use its influence and success with consumers to encourage customers to stay with Apple and not move to Android.
Apple has also recently decided to drop Google maps on its iPhone. Both Apple and Google licence map information and GSI and then build their interface on top. The battle lines have been drawn in this area – and one has to wonder if longer-term Apple has its eyes on the iCar. Google has already demonstrated its autonomous car and Apple must be watching this development with considerable interest.
Could the iCar become a reality?
Given the extraordinary power of the Apple brand and its near cult status among its many customers, the idea of an iCar is not as far fetched as it may at first seem. Indeed the role of the car is changing and as Microsoft has said “the car is a mobile node in a network”. Taking this a step further, it is entirely possible that Apple could design a highly stylish car that embraced all the very best innovations in consumer electronics and telecommunications and which would have enormous consumer appeal. With the advent of the electric car this is the one industry segment that would lend itself to this approach as it opens up the market for new players to take the lead. We are already seeing utility companies, mobile phone operators, telematics service providers as among those looking at entry into the electric vehicle market, so why not Apple? Furthermore, Apple could buy in the technology it needed and act as the systems integrator/final assembler, a business model it follows today through its contract manufacturing arrangements in the portable devices field.
When was the last time we can remember people queuing all night outside car dealerships? This is just a fanciful dream for most car companies but with an iCar Apple might just – one day – pull it off.
Author: Vanessa Scholfield