3 Questions for the Connected-Car Crowd
How can automakers and suppliers create technology that is easier for drivers to use?
Automakers on the cutting edge of technology such as Audi, Ford and Mercedes-Benz, as well as mega suppliers such as Microsoft, Harman and Visteon, are gathering today at Telematics Detroit, an annual conference focused on the connected-car business. This segment of the automotive market -- which includes infotainment, emergency assistance and advanced safety systems -- is forecast to increase from $70 billion in 2012 to $80 billion in 2014, according to the market research firm Accenture.
With technology saturating our lives outside the vehicle, automakers are jockeying to provide the type of connectivity behind the wheel that consumers expect while seated at a computer or from the smartphone in their hand. Automakers such as Ford, with its Sync system, have proved that tech sells. And now, wireless carrier Verizon -- which last week acquired Hughes Telematics, the provider of the Mercedes-Benz Mbrace system -- and insurer State Farm are starting to take aim at captive consumers in cars.
But stakeholders -- as well as government regulators -- have much to sort out before the car fully morphs into a smartphone with wheels. The Detroit Free Press recently posed three questions concerning the connected car:
- How can carmakers stuff more digital features into the vehicle without distracting the driver -- and what's necessary versus unnecessary?
- How can manufacturers adapt their systems to technology preferences that vary throughout the world?
- How should automakers partner with tech companies to develop connectivity features?
All good questions, given that the paper plays to a company town, and the reporter received some pretty good answers. But from a consumer perspective, we put together our own three questions, and provide potential solutions if not ultimate answers.
A different take on the first question is why are automakers focused on stuffing more digital features into the car instead of making infotainment systems more intuitive and helpful?
Sure, automakers can offer Facebook and Twitter feeds in the dash, and maybe if it stops people from looking down at their smartphones to get their social media fix while driving, that’s a plus. But the interfaces that automakers are offering have a long way to go, as MyFord Touch proves. And let’s just make using a cell phone via Bluetooth easier first.
Speaking of which, is it time for automakers to abandon Bluetooth as a so-called standard and search for another, less frustrating solution?
Bluetooth has become deeply embedded, first for hands-free phone calls and now as a smartphone tethering application. But if you frequently switch vehicles like I do -- or, more likely, if you switch phones every 18 months like many people -- you know that the Bluetooth technology in phones and those in cars can be incompatible in terms of available features. Sometimes when you update the software and firmware on your phone, you lose in-vehicle functions. I’m starting to hear hushed calls for automakers to abandon Bluetooth for a standard that’s less clunky but familiar to consumers -- Wi-Fi fits this bill -- especially as data connectivity becomes more crucial.
Instead of, "How should automakers partner with tech companies to develop connectivity features?" a better question may be, "Why don’t they just get out of the way and let technology experts take over?"
A phrase frequently heard in connected-car circles is “decoupling technology from vehicles.” This essentially means getting away from trying to add current technology, such as the latest smartphones, to electronics that were designed for a car up to three years ago because of automakers’ long product lead times. Some have suggested that automakers should simply offer a screen in the dash and an open platform for outside developers to come up with technology.
While this approach has problems -- not the least of which is security concerns and automakers not willing to cede control of the dashboard -- there’s a growing move towards this concept. The Car Connectivity Consortium, made up of several major automakers and suppliers, has developed a standard called MirrorLink that lets drivers connect their smartphones so that some of the applications they’re familiar with, such as GPS navigation, streaming music services and such, are “mirrored” on an in-dash screen. This way drivers doesn’t have to use and learn a new interface -- plus it’s updated along with their phones.
I’ll be attending Telematics Detroit and covering developments from there in a column on Monday. And I’ll be looking for better answers to these question – and, I hope, solutions from automakers and suppliers.
[Source: The Detroit Free Press.]
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