Automotive infotainment is gaining lots of traction these days thanks to the smart phone, changing expectations among customers on what they wish to do in cars and what they desire from infotainment solutions.
iSuppli Corp. has seen this coming for some time. Microsoft Corp. also recognized the phenomenon, responding in the form of Microsoft Auto. And although it was not as obvious several years ago when the platform was released, Ford’s move to adopt Microsoft’s solution and sell under the Sync name now is considered to be a brilliant decision—probably earning the automaker a couple points of brand market share.
Ford’s Sync today is the benchmark for infotainment feature sets. Sync—and its surrounding lifestyle positioning campaign—is bringing more customers into the dealership and, ultimately, selling more cars.
Earlier versions of Sync were popular, addressing the most sought-after features of device integration. While features such as hands-free calling and iPod integration were already hot, new elements—such as Traffic Directions and Information (TDI), 911 Assist and Vehicle Health Report—have made Sync more competitive with telematics solutions like General Motors’ OnStar.
The latest generation of Sync ups the ante even further by building a bridge to the cloud through support of applications such as Pandora, a feature currently stoking the industry. How should OEMs and suppliers get cloud-based applications into the car? How should they benefit from the ecosystem that is being born in the smart phone world? And how should they safely and effectively integrate the mobile device, and/or smart phone, into the car?
Thinking Outside the Headunit
First of all, what is the cloud? For the purposes of our analysis, the cloud refers to Open Internet content that is not protected by a walled garden nor is tied to a specific device. Pandora is a classic example of tapping into the cloud from a content standpoint—as is Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter and many more. Ford’s Traffic Directions and Information is not cloud-based but a walled garden, given that devices other than Sync are unable to obtain access. The latest version of MyFord Sync, however, goes outside of the walled garden and taps into cloud-based applications such as Pandora, Stitcher and OpenBeak.
Going to the cloud is a tough concept for the auto industry. Historically, most content being consumed in the car is rendered on-board. De-contenting is the hard part because it translates into significant platform changes for the OEM. Furthermore, it opens up new challenges associated with connectivity because accessing the cloud today takes a data plan one way or another.
Any Role for Telematics?
Where does this leave traditional telematics solutions such as OnStar? While traditional telematics is not a requirement to selling cars—cars will sell fine without those features—OEMs want to build safer cars, which will help that cause. The question arises, however, on whether new buyers in their 20s will be more attracted to Pandora or to an OnStar call center.
GM, realizing this dilemma, has rapidly taken action. GM/OnStar not only announced support for Android and Google but also demonstrated a next-generation OnStar platform supporting a few smart phone applications able to communicate with the car. Likewise, a new “navigation” tab has been added to the existing OnStar Mobile app on the Android smart phone. Users can work with Google Maps as a vehicle finder, as well as use Google search by voice to find destinations with their Android handset.
Smart phone apps that talk to the car are slick and already have been brought to market through Mercedes Benz’ Mbrace as well as Hughes Telematics. More of these solutions can be expected because the capability to communicate with the car via a smart phone is one that can be considered a “natural” fit. To some extent, one will be able to replace certain call-center features with a machine-based solution, even though remote telemetry is possible only through an embedded solution.
The other motive for embedded telematics stems from remote diagnostics and remote software upgrades that, sooner or later, will be conducted more cost effectively through telematics than through a dealer visit.
At the end of the day, connectivity modules in the car will be vital to support the gamut of connected applications that range from remote diagnostics to streaming media. iSuppli contends that vehicle-centric applications will benefit by having an embedded communication module, while cloud-based apps will use the driver’s mobile data plans. Should pricing for data plans change to buckets or family plans, there will be a greater shift to the embedded approach as it becomes possible to share a data plan in the car or with any device for that matter.
From an infotainment standpoint, iSuppli sees a shift taking place toward layered software architectures in which a device is not locked down throughout its product life cycle. Native application support through Genivi, Android or Windows Embedded Automotive offers flexibility to support this feature. iSuppli also believes that Terminal mode will catch fire in the market even though it faces challenges. Somewhere in between will be a non-native application running through a custom software interface, as is the case with Ford’s Sync, or with the numerous other connected devices in the home