Automotive Infotainment Grows Up

The in-car PC is gone, but in-car connectivity is back – better and safer than ever.

Charles Murray

November 16, 2011

2 Min Read
Automotive Infotainment  Grows Up

Ready or not, the Internet is creeping back into the vehicle.

This time, we're not talking in-car PCs. Drivers won't be Googling as they tool down the road.

But the Internet is coming, just the same. This time, it has a lot to do with smartphones, low-cost navigation, fleet operations, and vehicle tracking, as well as an office-in-the-car, Facebook-in-the-back-seat kind of mentality. Nothing's more chic than mobile Internet connectivity, and the auto industry isn't about to let that opportunity pass unfulfilled.

"These days, along with computing, wireless communication seems to be the center of the innovation universe," says Don Butler, vice president of marketing for Cadillac. "This is the place where the cool stuff is happening."

Nokia's Car Mode simplifies access to voice-guided car navigation, traffic updates, music, and voice calls
through the company's smartphones.

Automakers know what's cool, and they want to offer cool stuff to their customers. In September, a powerful consortium of auto companies, cellphone makers, and electronics manufacturers unveiled an open standard to make it easier for a car's head unit to communicate with Internet-enabled smartphones. Days later, Cadillac rolled out an infotainment system that lets users control in-car devices, such as smartphones, with the touch gestures that have become familiar to users of iPads. Manufacturers of cars, trucks, and even buses have installed router-like devices to deliver Internet connectivity to contractors, salespeople, and students.

"Manufacturers now know they have to deliver apps and services to their vehicles," says Sterling Pratz, CEO of Autonet Mobile, a maker of vehicle-based Internet routers. "Not only do these technologies support the consumer. They also drive sales."

That hasn't always been the case. On the road to in-vehicle nirvana, automakers and suppliers have occasionally misread the signals. In 2000, for example, Cadillac rolled out an in-car PC that intertwined such services as email, Internet browsing, navigation assistance, and cellphone capabilities. By late 2001, the luxury car manufacturer had pulled the plug on the technology. Several other manufacturers considered such efforts, and one supplier even rolled out an after-market in-car PC, but the demand for such systems was tepid at best.

Today, the demand has clearly changed. Many smartphone owners want to bring their device into the vehicle and access it through their center console, or even through steering wheel controls. They say they don't want an in-car PC, but they do want connectivity.

"People get scared of the Internet-in-the-car idea," Pratz says. "They think about texting and driver distractions and crashes."

In truth, the auto industry wants connectivity in the car. It just wants to supply that connectivity responsibly. The Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) -- which includes Volkswagen, Toyota, General Motors, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Delphi, Alpine, Clarion, Denso, Garmin, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi Electric, Motorola Mobility, Nokia, Panasonic, Renesas, Samsung, and Sony -- recently took a step in that direction. It rolled out an open standard that enables the majority of automotive head units and smartphones to communicate.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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