Posted by Jim Martin 16 January 2014
Infotainment systems: Should cars have apps or should they stay on your smartphone?
Infotainment systems in cars are becoming a battleground where manufacturers try to persuade you their car has better tech than its rivals, and is therefore a better car. But should the car provide the internet connection and apps or not?
Up until now, most car tech was concerned with safety, but over the last few years ‘infotainment’ systems have crept into certain models. Being more than simply a Bluetooth connection to the radio, these proprietary, closed systems have begun to merge the traditional satnav/radio/cd player and trip computer with apps and app stores.
Some rely on your smartphone’s data connection, while others have a built-in SIM to connect directly to the internet. There are all sorts of apps from email and web browsers to those that provide music streaming or internet radio (including Spotify, Deezer and LiveRadio).
Others provide driving aids, such as Waze for crowd-sourced traffic information, Coyote for up-to-the minute traffic and incident information, and parking apps which help you find nearby carparks.
It’s easy to see the advantage of such systems. With good voice recognition, you can launch apps and get the information you want without taking your hands off the wheel. There’s still a way to go with voice recognition, however.
Either it relies on a data connection, as Apple’s Siri does, improving recognition thanks to the enormous power of a load of servers, or your commands are interpreted by the infotainment system itself. With the latter approach, it will work even if you’re out of 3G coverage but forces you to say much more specific commands and has a more limited scope.
Voice recognition, though, is an aside from a bigger issue. Ford, BMW, Mini, Renault and other infotainment systems all have their own app stores and developers have to produce separate versions of their apps for them. Unlike the Google Play Store or Apple App Store, which each have millions upon millions of users, there are merely thousands (or fewer) owners of car infotainment systems. Developers are unlikely to spend time and effort producing apps which might not make any profit, and this is why many infotainment systems have only a handful of apps to choose between.
Another issue with proprietary, closed systems is longevity. In a couple of years, manufacturers might have moved onto something new, meaning your outmoded system gets no more updates and no new apps. Cars have a much longer lifecycle than a tablet or smartphone, so even though a six-year-old car has plenty of life left in it, its infotainment system may not.
This is why Google’s Open Automotive Alliance and Apple’s iOS in the car make a lot of sense. If manufacturers adopt a ‘standard’ infotainment platform, there’s a much better chance of it lasting longer and offering a much wider selection of apps.
Arguably, though, it would be better if the infotainment system was little more than a bigger screen for your smartphone. Most, if not all of the apps on offer in a car’s app store are available on your smartphone and these simply need to be mirrored onto the car’s display.
Is it really necessary to duplicate your email, contacts, even satnav app on the car’s infotainment system? There’s even hardware duplication as far as GPS receivers and 3G connections are concerned.
Cars with infotainment systems are more likely to be purchased by tech enthusiasts who will undoubtedly own a smartphone but, naturally, there will always be some who don’t. This is precisely why it isn’t feasible to make a completely ‘dumb’ in-car screen.
However, a system which can mirror your smartphone means it won’t be outmoded quite as quickly: as soon as you get a new handset, your infotainment system benefits. In fact, plenty of manufacturers including BMW, Ford, Renault and Chrysler have already launched apps that you can install on your iPhone to remotely control your car. They let you do a variety of things from checking an electric vehicle's charge level to pre-warming or cooling it or even locating it in a carpark by flashing its lights or beeping its horn. Using your phone's other functions and apps could be simply an extension of this.
Whether Google or Apple will succeed in the automotive world remains to be seen, but the next couple of years will be very interesting indeed.