Cars, phones are tricky combo
Drivers want all smartphone functions, but distraction, logistics are tough issues
Consumers love their smartphones and want their cars to do all the engaging things their digital devices can do.
The dream is indeed compelling: Consumers would connect their smartphones to their cars and enjoy on their center-stack screens all of the phones' many applications.
But for automakers, what might seem like a simple request -- make consumers' smartphones and their automobiles work together with few limitations -- is fraught with safety and technical obstacles.
Consumers "just want to get in, plug in their phone, and have it start to work," says Doug Newcomb, a consultant to suppliers and automakers on car audio and technology integration. "That's kind of the way it needs to go. It's almost as if the automakers have to get out of the way as quickly as possible."
Caution at Ford
Suppliers and automakers say full integration of handheld digital devices into cars could lead to such dangers as drivers watching movies on their center-stack screens instead of watching the road.
As a result, automakers have been cautious about marrying their products with consumers' ubiquitous digital devices.
Ford Motor Co., for example, has approved just 10 outside applications, or software designed for certain tasks, among thousands of requests it has received for use on the first generation of its Sync communications system, said spokesman Alan Hall. For example, it has approved Pandora, an Internet music service.
Ford has approved no outside apps for MyFord Touch, a combination of Sync plus touch-screen inputs, because it is still developing software that would allow any applications to be controlled in a hands-free manner with voice controls.
Ford's troubles with MyFord Touch underline the difficulties of opening up the center-stack screen to the thousands of apps available on smartphones.
Even with its own carefully developed software, MyFord Touch has been criticized for distracting drivers. This year, after many customer complaints and bad publicity, Ford sent a software update to about 300,000 customers who had the first generation of MyFord Touch in their vehicles to improve its responsiveness and simplify its touch-screen inputs.
The technical challenges to integrate a smartphone into an auto are daunting.
It can take three years or longer to develop a vehicle, and that vehicle, once it gets into the hands of consumers, is likely to still be on the road a decade later. A car's ability to communicate with electronic devices can become outdated as smartphone manufacturers swiftly incorporate features into their devices.
"The consumer side of hardware and software is changing so rapidly that what is new technology today in consumer electronics is out of date in 18 months," says Mike Ray, automotive technical director at supplier Dassault Systemes. "We're trying to integrate that same technology into a vehicle that's taken me three to five years to get to market, so I'm always out of date."
Ray said it's common for automotive designers and engineers to design an in-vehicle entertainment system around a computer chip that, when it comes time to actually produce the vehicle, is so obsolete that it's no longer being made.
Modern smartphones are computing powerhouses -- in many ways miniature versions of desktop computer systems from just a few years ago. But they still rely on a cellular network connection and the Internet to be fully functional.
And those connections can be unreliable -- for instance, when you're driving in a remote rural area with no cell service.
And Bluetooth, the standard wireless connection between a smartphone or iPad and the car, is not bulletproof.
Suppliers and automakers are exploring potential alternatives to Bluetooth. Among the technologies being studied are Near Field Communications -- similar to the radio barcodes used by retailers to thwart shoplifters -- and WiFi, the most common method by which laptops connect to the Internet.
The connection "has to be something that's stable long enough for cars to ship with it and for phones not to have bypassed it all," says Andy Gryc, the automotive product marketing manager with supplier QNX Software Systems. QNX helps car companies integrate smartphones and other handheld electronic devices into their products.
Consultant Newcomb says consumers naturally want their smartphone to work with their vehicle. But there are three main smartphone operating systems, developed by Apple, Microsoft and Google.
That means people developing software for automakers may have to create three versions of the same application in order to run the program in an automobile.
One answer to the problem is a technology called HTML5, which promises to standardize the interaction between the automobile and smartphone. It does so by moving applications onto a familiar browser-based platform allowing automakers to maintain control over several areas, such as an app's appearance on infotainment screens.
That's particularly important for luxury brands, which want their brand cues to appear on the center-stack screen. Recently, a group of key suppliers, automakers and electronics makers formed a group to develop common communications standards.
The group, called the Car Connectivity Consortium, is working to establish a common standard, dubbed MirrorLink, to allow developers to develop software applications for vehicles, regardless of the smartphone's underlying system. All three Detroit-based automakers participate in the consortium, as do Toyota Motor Corp., American Honda and Hyundai-Kia Automotive.
But having a common standard presents its own problem for automakers. With a common standard, information from a smartphone displayed on a center-stack screen could look the same on a luxury or a budget vehicle.
"The in-dash user interface is so much a part of the brand, and the higher you go up on the [luxury] chain, the more important it is," consultant Newcomb said. "Can you imagine having the same user interface in your BMW 750i as you do in your Kia Forte? I don't think that's going to work."
Much work remains before smartphones -- and whatever electronic marvels will follow them -- are meshed inseparably with the automobile.
Like a planetary gear set, common standards are likely one day to allow smartphone manufacturers and automakers to move in the same direction at the same speed, despite their different interests. Those standards, whether it is HTML5 or MirrorLink, show promise but have so far proved elusive.
Automakers are proceeding cautiously. They are keenly aware of regulators' interest in anything that increases driver distraction, while trying to attract customers with the latest and greatest electronics.
You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at firstname.lastname@example.org.