In-car tech: ultimate guide to infotainment
28th Jun 2012 | 09:31
Get up to speed with our ultimate guide to the latest in-car technology
Infotainment: the basics
Fact: Pretty much all new cars are a decent steer. The driving experience delivered by the major brands is now so polished and so homogenous, that many cars, from a Ford Focus to a Volkswagen Golf, offer very similar dynamics. Likewise, the gap between premium and mainstream manufacturers has dwindled to vanishing point.
OK, a Mercedes or BMW does drive a little better than a Vauxhall. But today's motorists are more likely to notice how slickly and seamlessly a smartphone syncs with their latest vehicle, the intuitiveness of the media playback controls and whether the sat nav guides them accurately from A to B. In other words, forget steering feel, it's that awful word infotainment that really matters.
As the consumer technology and automotive industries continue to converge, buyers are only going to become more demanding. Part of the problem is that six months is an eternity in terms of smartphone development, but it's a blink of an eye in car development.
The result is that dated in-car systems are becoming more and more of a problem. Whether it's the latest mapping techology, social networking or high speed internet connections, expectations for seamless integration and high performance across all computing devices are on the up. That includes cars.
What are your options?
All of which begs some crucial questions. For starters, who makes the best in-car infotainment systems today? What are the key trends for the future and is it even realistic for every car manufacturer to produce its own bespoke infotainment platform?
When BMW first introduced the iDrive interface, it was dismissed as impenetrably complex and unfathomable to use. But that hasn't stopped several other car manufacturers from developing similar systems.
Mercedes' COMAND and Audi's MMI systems also use a rotary wheel-come-joystick controller for navigating menus and inputting data. It's a much more intuitive and effective control interface than the more Luddite members of the mainstream motoring press would have you believe.
But there is another option. With a touchscreen you can enter a sat nav destination in seconds. You can also flick between menus, change settings and enter phone numbers far quicker than you could with a dial or joystick. Accordingly several car manufacturers have adopted touchscreens for their infotainment systems, including Jaguar, Land Rover, VW and Porsche.
At the same time, makers of portable digital devices are increasingly turning to touch. What works well on an Apple iPad can also make sense in-car. But wouldn't it also be nice if the touch interface in your car mirrored that of your smartphone, your PC and your tablet? In other words, why not apply the best interface across all devices, rather than having to learn the ins and outs of half a dozen?
Hold that thought for a moment. Assuming you have a control interface that works intuitively, be it touch or wheel driven, the next big question is functionality.
It's all about the journey
In-car, the key features list begins with navigation. In the UK, the most efficient way to enter a destination is via postcodes. However, many factory fitted navigation systems still don't support seven-digit postcode entry. It's a particularly painful shortcoming when you consider that nearly all aftermarket navigation systems support full postcode input.
It's just one of many examples where dirt cheap consumer electronics, such as £100 sat nav units can trounce built-in infotainment systems costing thousands. In theory, any sat nav system should also be able to adapt your route to avoid traffic jams and accident spots.
Most factory-fit systems have support for the FM radio-based RDS-TMC traffic information system. But it's no match for aftermarket traffic information platforms such as TomTom's HD Traffic. TomTom's system constantly updates traffic information via an integrated cellular connection and guides the driver through the least congested route, courtesy of detailed and up-to-date pictures of traffic conditions.
Leave it to the experts
The obvious solution, and one that could point the way forward for several aspects of in-car technology, is to leave the experts to do what they do best. As far as navigation goes, both Fiat and Renault are doing just that in the form of TomTom engineered factory-fit sat navs.
If infotainment is essentially a triple-pronged beast composed of nav, comms and tunes, one of its key enablers is Bluetooth. It's the predominant wireless interface for connecting mobile phones. That much you probably already knew. But did you also know there are two different Bluetooth profiles available for connecting phones with infotainment systems?
The SIM Access Profile (SAP) communicates directly with the SIM in your phone. Consequently, a SAP connection can make use of a high-gain radio fitted to the car, rather than a phone's radio hardware, and therefore provide better reception.
Unfortunately SAP isn't widely supported by mobile phone manufacturers yet. Instead, most infotainment systems rely on the Hands-Free Profile (HFP). With HFP, your phone will connect to your infotainment system in the same manner as it would a Bluetooth headset, with the phone's radio and antenna doing all the work.
The sound of music
Of course, Bluetooth isn't just about cellular comms. It can also be a useful interface for music playback. The best in-car infotainment systems don't just play streamed music from devices such as smartphones. They also show track information and provide transport controls for changing tunes.
One of the more delightful features of the best infotainment solutions is the ability to seamlessly switch music playback from the headphones of the portable device to the in-car audio system. You simply step into the car, hit the ignition and it all happens automatically. Many in-car systems can also store music locally. Some even include CD ripping capability complete with the Gracenote database, which allows tracks to be automatically tagged and named.
Stream it, baby
Increasingly, however, the best solution is the streamlined ability to play music from a portable device, be that a smartphone or dedicated music player. It's down to what works best for an end-user juggling several devices. Why bother with maintaining several parallel music libraries when you can have a single, centralised music repository?
That, in turn, is something that might be even easier to manage via some kind of online, cloud-based music library. More on which in a moment.
When Jaguar announced the arrival of their new XJ back in 2009 one of the technology highlights was a virtual dashboard with user-configurable dials and displays. As more manufacturers adopt virtual instruments, drivers will have the ability to display the information that's most useful to them.
But that information doesn't have to be displayed within the dash binnacle. With head-up display technology making the move from fighter planes to automobiles, drivers can keep track of relevant information such as speed, navigation prompts and gear ratios without having to look away from the road.
The new Audi A7 Sportback has a head-up display that shows all of the above plus the speed limit and distance to the car in front. It even alerts drivers to hazards ahead, long before they can see them.
With smartphones providing internet access anywhere, anyplace, anytime, that's arguably the next big thing to aim for infotainment-wise. Audi's revision of the MMI platform, as seen in the A7 Sportback and new A6 models, was one of the first to include 3G connectivity, a distinct advantage over the 2.5G Edge connection used by the likes of BMW's ConnectedDrive. Simply install a 3G data SIM in the MMI infotainment system, and you unleash a world of high-speed internet access.
Seriously speedy hotspot
But it's not just the MMI platform itself that can get online. It can also create a Wi-Fi hotspot linked to its 3G connection. So, if you're sitting in the back of the car on your laptop, you can get online like a home or café wireless network.
For the record, BMW has also launched an update to its ConnectedDrive system, allowing for the connection of a 3G dongle via a USB port and support for Wi-Fi hotspots.
What about the future?
Digital devices such as PCs, smartphones and tablets are all upgradeable. In other words, you can install apps along with firmware and software updates to unlock new features and functionality. The same evolutionary model will soon exist for in-car infotainment systems.
Embedded computing platforms such as Intel's Atom processor and Nvidia's Tegra 3 smartphone chip will enable infotainment systems capable of running a multitude of operating systems, while also supporting software upgrades in the form of apps, just like a smartphone.
A glimpse of this future comes courtesy of Renault's upcoming infotainment system, known as R-Link. Based on Google's Android operating system, as seen in the latest tablets and smartphones, it should make for the most seamless integration yet between smartphones and cars - for those of you with Android handsets, of course.
Another way of reducing the number of interfaces is to literally use your smartphone or tablet computer to control in-car systems. At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Volkswagen unveiled the Bulli concept, a reborn Microbus for the new millennium. Cutesy styling aside, the big news with Bulli is a purpose-built dock for Apple's iPad tablet computer. Simply drop your iPad in and it assumes control of the full infotainment system as well as other in-car features such as climate control.
Infotainment: connect to the cloud
With cars rolling out of the factory with high-speed, always-on internet connections, it won't be long before cars are connected to the cloud, just like phones and computers. That means the driver's contacts, email and calendar can all be accessed in-car, and with text-to-speech and voice recognition technology, the car can read your latest emails and messages and replies can be dictated in return.
Owners will be able to browse, download and install any useful apps to customise their experience, too. Drivers will even be able to log all mileages and fuel consumption up in the cloud.
When it's time to do your taxes, you'll have all your travel expense information digitally to hand. In-car kit makes for heavenly tax returns. You weren't expecting that.
Who's ahead of the game with in-car tech?
BMW iDrive has evolved into a comprehensive and powerful infotainment system over the years. It's one of the better built-in navigation systems, with high resolution maps and seven-digit postcode support, options for iPods and USB devices, and Bluetooth connectivity.
The lack of touchscreen has drawbacks, but ConnectedDrive makes up for that with the ability to send sat-nav info to the car from Google Maps. The latest addition of 3G dongle support adds high-speed internet access and a Wi-Fi hotspot for passengers to share.
The latest version of MMI, as seen in the A7 Sportback, finally provides seven-digit postcode support. There's no touchscreen, but the dial-joystick controller has a touchpad that makes interaction easier.
The integrated 3G connection ensures fast internet access and can overlay 3D environments courtesy of Google Earth, which is impressive, if potentially distracting. Shared internet via a Wi-Fi hotspot will keep passengers happy too. However, there's no way to download new functionality or apps over the air.
Fiat's Blue&Me isn't about large colour screens and 3D maps. The basic system doesn't even include navigation. What it provides is a simple but effective infotainment platform that does the basics right. It keeps you connected, works well with smartphones and has all the desirable music playback options, including Bluetooth and USB streaming.
However, the really clever bit is Blue&Me's ability to upgrade the functionality over time. The USB port can be used to install new applications, such as eco:Drive, which helps to monitor and tailor driving habits.
Mercedes's COMAND Online adds internet connectivity to the standard COMAND infotainment system. Internet connectivity is provided by a sync'ed smartphone, so connection speeds are handset dependent. It even has a full web browser, though performance is pretty poor. But you also get the ability to send destination details to the car via Google Maps.
The system is pretty comprehensive, with optional local music storage, an SD card slot for music and video playback and Bluetooth. The wheel-joystick interface works as well as competing solutions from BMW and Audi, while the voice control is generally accurate.
Apps and the cloud
Although Blue&Me was the first infotainment system that allowed user-installable apps, the installation process involved physically plugging in a USB key. The iPhone integration feature on the new Mercedes A-Class takes the app-installation theme a step further. But if in-car apps are really going to take off, they need to be as easy to find and install as they are on a smartphone.
We're already halfway there with the implementation of 3G internet connections in the latest infotainment systems, but car manufacturers are still some way off launching stores for their customers. One shortcut to market is to use an operating system that already supports apps and has an infrastructure in place to choose or buy them.
That's what Renault has done by adopting Google Android for its R-Link infotainment solution. However, Renault can't just allow its customers access to the Android Market, as the majority of the existing Android apps aren't suitable for an in-car system. The next challenge for car makers is to encourage developers to produce genuinely useful apps for in-car infotainment systems, while ensuring quality control on compatibility, usability and safety.
We'll find out later this year just how well the idea of in-car Android works when the Renault Zoe, the first model with the R-Link system and a very funky looking and relatively affordable electric vehicle, finally goes on sale.