Every major automotive group in the world has developed its own version of an infotainment system – some in-house and others in collaboration with tech companies – with varying degrees of success.
Both Apple and Google have also developed automotive products based on their iPhone and Android operating systems.
Infotainment (information and entertainment) refers to a combination of various vehicle systems and functions, operated via a central screen that sits somewhere near the top of the car’s dash.
Key features of any infotainment system include phone connectivity for calls and messaging, audio and entertainment functions including radio and media streaming, apps, system settings and in some cases satellite navigation.
Wrapping your head around an infotainment system can be overwhelming as each brand’s offering differs. Given there are more than 60 automotive brands vying for your attention in Australia, we’ve detailed some of the functions you’re likely to find in most infotainment systems, rather than diving into each specific brand. Let’s start with where it’s housed.
Touch and go
Aside from a few low-grade utes and base-model small cars, most new passenger cars in Australia are fitted with a touchscreen as the main infotainment hub.
Touchscreens usually use LCD (liquid crystal display) or TFT (thin film transistors) to display graphics and information and generally range in size (measured diagonally) from a couple of inches to more than 12. Tesla’s screens are up to 17 inches.
Some manufacturers have minimised the number of buttons on the dash and centre console by incorporating many of the vehicle’s other functions – beyond phone and audio – into the infotainment system.
While a reversing camera is almost always found in the central touchscreen, some manufacturers have also included functions such as air-conditioning and climate control, seat adjustment and seat heating/cooling, and vehicle information via the trip computer.
For example, Volvo models incorporate everything in the infotainment screen with the exception of audio volume and the defroster. Tesla goes further, including virtually all vehicle functions in its massive tablet-like touchscreen.
Car touchscreens function in a similar way to a smartphone – just tap the icon on the screen to access whatever control you need and follow the prompts for further actions. Different manufacturers have different approaches to touchscreens, including some rather advanced options. Some have ‘pinch to zoom’ functionality that allows you to zoom in on a sat-nav map by pinching the screen as you would on a smartphone or tablet.
Volkswagen’s Discover Pro system uses proximity sensors to detect a person’s hand near the screen and intuitively guesses what function you’re going to select. You can then use gesture control to flip through albums or artists in the audio section or wave your hand to move to a different area of the menu page.
BMW’s gesture control allows you to make a swirling motion in the general direction of the touchscreen to turn the volume up or down or reject an incoming call by waving your hand dismissively. Clever stuff.
Porsche and Audi systems feature haptic feedback so there’s an audible click and a physical buzz on your finger when you press an icon on the touchscreen, to help connect the user to the technology.
One significant downside of touchscreens is the risk of driver distraction and you should avoid using any touchscreen functions while driving. They are really only safe to use while the car is stationary. If you want to change a track or switch from streaming music to radio, most cars have controls for this on the steering wheel and it’s safer to use them than reach across to the screen.
Several manufacturers, including BMW and Mazda, provide central controllers housed in the centre console, so there’s no need to reach across to the screen to make a selection. You simply turn the dial to navigate various menus on the screen, then select by pressing on the dial.
Some manufacturers such as Lexus have gone further, including a handwriting recognition touchpad in the centre console that allows you to write letters or numbers for functions such as sat nav, although it can be tricky to be accurate unless you’re left-handed.