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Is HondaLink the Future for Cloud-Connected Cars?

Infotainment system lets a tech expert take control of content and how it’s brought into the car.

By Douglas Newcomb Jul 23, 2012 7:18AM

HondaLink. Image by Honda.By unveiling its HondaLink system last week, Honda showed that when it comes to in-car technology, sometimes it's an advantage not being first to market. The lag allows you to learn from the mistakes made by the trailblazers in the segment. HondaLink may also prove that it pays to allow a technology company -- in this case Aha Radio, by mega automotive supplier Harman -- to take control of content and how it’s brought into the car.


A handful of automakers have rushed to be the first to add cloud connectivity to their vehicles, mainly through smartphone integration, while others have sat idling on the sidelines. This has resulted in a variety of approaches to this still-evolving area of automotive infotainment, with no clear winner yet. A few pitfalls, on the other hand, have been prevalent.


BMW’s ConnectedDrive is a hybrid approach. It uses a built-in modem that’s part of the BMW Assist telematics system for some of its cloud-connected services, while the BMW Apps feature relies on a tethered smartphone to bring Internet radio, Facebook and Twitter feeds into the car. But BMW Apps and some of the ConnectedDrive features work only with Apple’s iPhone, and BMW recently announced that Android capability won’t be available until the middle of next year.


The Toyota Entune system works with iPhones and BlackBerry and Android devices, and uses a “gateway” Entune application that incorporates individual apps such as Pandora Internet radio, Bing local search and access to MovieTickets.com and OpenTable. But I’ve found it complicated to set up. The AppLink feature in the Ford Sync also works with the same trio of smartphone platforms, but instead uses native apps such as Pandora and NPR on the driver's portable device by transferring control of those apps to the car.


The Chevy MyLink system -- available only in the 2012 Equinox, 2012 Volt and the 2013 Malibu -- uses a similar approach but features only Pandora and Stitcher. The version of MyLink that will be available on the Chevy Spark when the subcompact car is introduced next year doesn’t even have a disc player and relies solely on a connected smartphone for all entertainment and navigation functions -- and even voice activation. When drivers press the voice-recognition button on the steering wheel of the Spark and speak a command, they will be talking to their phone, since the car's onboard system doesn’t have its own voice-recognition tech built it in, for cost-saving reasons.


HondaLink doesn’t go that far; it will have a disc slot and onboard voice-recognition when it launches on the 2013 Accord this fall. But all apps and content will be off-board and supplied through a dedicated Aha Radio app -- and there are a couple of advantages to this approach.


One is that by using Aha Radio, HondaLink drivers will have a lot more content to choose from compared with any of the current systems: Internet radio, podcasts, Facebook and Twitter feeds, Yelp restaurant reviews and more. Other content can be added easily thanks to the second advantage: Since Aha Radio updates through the smartphone, HondaLink should be able to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of car tech -- quickly becoming antiquated compared with rapidly evolving consumer technology.


HondaLink is the latest example of an automaker trying to satisfy increasingly tech-savvy car buyers, for whom staying connected while behind the wheel has become an important purchasing decision. Of course, HondaLink is still an unproven system, and a key factor will be the car’s user interface. But by initially playing it safe and learning from the missteps of other automakers -- and handing the technology heavy lifting to an outside expert -- HondaLink may stand a better chance at success.


Until, perhaps, the next solution comes along, or one of the pioneering automakers learns from its own mistakes in a second-generation system.


Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

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