I thought it would be easy to write about smartphones and infotainment systems until I handed a draft to senior members of the vehicle team and they returned the printout covered with scribbled question marks.
The technical specifications are baffling but one thing is clear, smartphones have changed the way we connect and interact with our in-car entertainment and information systems.
Once upon a time there was something called an eight-track which provided music in a car. Then we went to cassette tapes, which I have experienced but are now gone. Even CDs are on their way out. The ability to store music as a computer file and the subsequent iPod and smartphone revolution has rendered older music storage mediums obsolete.
We’re now in the realm of the ‘infotainment’ system which is capable, as the name suggests, of providing both information and entertainment.
Information typically deals with navigation, traffic information and car details such as fuel consumption.
On the entertainment front we’ve got connectivity for smartphones and Bluetooth streaming as standard features on almost all new cars. Digital radio (DAB) is also beginning to gain traction.
When it comes to music storage though, the latest trend is to not store the music at all. Mobile data connections have allowed for internet-based music streaming apps to move in. Some car companies have introduced these apps, be they Pandora, Spotify or others, into their infotainment systems.
Smartphone integration and desire for up-to-date information in the car is leading us down a new path – using the infotainment system as a simple extension of the smartphone screen. Honda took a step towards this with its Display Audio system, but it required an expensive cable and Honda-specific apps.
Now the game has changed again with the launch of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into a mainstream vehicle – the new Skoda Fabia. Other car makers are getting on board, announcing updates to their cars and new models that will employ this technology.
Plug your phone in and the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto infotainment system acts as a cut-down version of your phone with similar access and control over most apps. The screen and functionality will look similar to the phone but the controls may change between car brands, depending on their choice of touch screen, buttons or selector dials.
The basic function will include control over phone and message features, as well as music and navigation. As apps are updated more features and better integration will follow.
Updates are one of the keys to this technology. Smartphone users have become used to updating the apps and operating system of their phone and this will now mean that your car infotainment system is updated too.
Out-of-date maps will be a thing of the past as they are streamed just as they are on a smartphone, removing the need for those expensive map updates. Voice control features will also improve with these systems as Apple’s ‘Siri’ is significantly better than the average car-based voice control system.
There are some drawbacks. Data usage is a key element of these new infotainment systems and can be expensive, depending on your phone plan. There is still a need to plug your phone into the system with the charging cable as the new system will not yet function wirelessly. Apple has announced that wireless connectivity will become available.
The potential for distraction is the biggest concern as drivers will have greater access to their phone’s features, though particularly distracting apps will not be able to be used on the screen.
Music system faces hacker alert
Vehicle manufacturers are tending to provide infotainment systems with their own separate data connection. This allows for information and music streaming services to be accessed without requiring a mobile phone connection. But, as recent headlines have shown, this data connection has proven to be an issue for Jeep in the US where hackers were able to gain almost complete control of a vehicle remotely via this connection. Jeep said this issue does not affect any cars in Australia but it highlights a need for manufacturers to improve their security as vehicles become more connected.