The car as connected device

Thursday 23 April 2015 | 11:58 CET | Background

Multimedia systems are growing ever more advanced, we found on a visit to the AutoRAI show underway in Amsterdam. 'My car' apps are increasingly common, and a number of brands are adding data connections to offer drivers extra services such as location information and advice about maintenance. Mainstream cars with Apple's CarPlay should hit the market this autumn. 

Many manufacturers are now offering a smartphone app for owners to check various functions on the car. These extra features are no longer limited to the premium brands; Opel offers an extensive system on all its models.  

Opel’s dashboard system IntelliLink runs a navigation system (BringGo) and a number of apps, including TuneIn web radio and Stitcher podcasts. It works with Android devices and with the iPhone's Siri Eyes Free mode, an adapted version of the voice-control system designed for use in the car. 

myOpel, My Volkswagen 

The smartphone app myOpel will receive a major update in the autumn. General Motors will also introduce its OnStar system in 13 European countries this August. All its models will be available with an optional LTE connection and Wi-Fi hotspot. If the car is involved in an accident (ie, the air bags are activated), the company's call centre in the UK is informed and the car's location is sent to emergency services.

Volkswagen introduced at the AutoRAI its ‘My Volkswagen’ app for Android and iOS. It's available first with the Golf and other models will follow. The car comes with an integrated 3G modem that sends information from the on-board system to a data centre. The app and associated platform will launch nationwide in the Netherlands in late May.

The app allows the driver to check where he/she has parked, as well as track travel information such as distance, time and average speed. The app and two years of data usage are included in the Business Edition Connected package, which costs around EUR 2,000. A spokesman for VW said nearly all its business customers order cars with an integrated navigation system. 

Volkswagen also provides regular info over the app about scheduled maintenance or service problems, such as a battery running low after cold weather which could affect starting the car. The app is also used to help build brand loyalty and to ensure the car is serviced more with the brand's dealers. 

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Apple has released its CarPlay system for the Dutch market. CarPlay is a system to integrate iOS devices in cars. An iPhone connects automatically after it's plugged into the dashboard USB port. The screen in the dashboard then shows the app icons the same way as they appear on the iPhone. 

At the AutoRAI, only one car with CarPlay was on display, a Ferrari FF. Ferrari is an early adopter, as "nearly all" its customers have iPhones, a spokesman said. Apple presented CarPlay for the first time last March, but carmakers have needed time to integrate and test the system. Other brands only expect to offer the Apple system in the second half of this year. 

CarPlay supports only apps that are safe to use while driving, such as navigation and music. Control of the system relies heavily on voice commands through an adapted version of Siri. Since the recent update to iOS 8.3, Dutch language support is also available. 

Android Auto will take more time to reach the market. Android Auto works with devices running Android 5.0 or higher. Google released the app in March this year, and most carmakers will not complete integration testing before the end of the year. A number of cars already on the market though should be able to receive the system through an update. 

Own-brand systems

Almost all car manufacturers have announced support for both systems, with the assumption that drivers always have their smartphones close by. Nevertheless, many continue to develop their own connected car systems as well, and the innovation has accelerated compared to a few years ago.

The quickly changing world of mobile hardware has always posed a problem for auto manufacturers. Development of a new car needs to be frozen at a certain point, and this is usually 1.5-2 years before it reaches the showroom. That can mean old hardware when it comes to mobile. With the increasingly small size of the hardware though, development can progress longer, and the new features placed on the dashboard later. 

Furthermore, many brands already have powerful in-house systems. The German premium brands can ask up to five figures for their high-end audio systems. A spokesman for Mercedes-Benz said that the company's in-house system offers so much functionality that smartphone integration can add little to improve it. 

Mercedes developed its own interface with voice commands, buttons on the steering wheel and a touchpad mid-console on which users can write letters and numbers. Audi also offers word input. This was developed especially for the Chinese market so characters can also be entered. 

Standard M2M data connections allow for part of the development to shift to software and cloud services. Volvo expects its latest version, Sensus, is powerful enough to run for many years. Services development will continue on the Connected vehicle Cloud from Ericsson. 

Other manufacturers have developed a type of tablet system. Renault has the R-Link, which runs on a version of Android with its own app store and a limited number of apps. The Honda Connect runs on Android 4.0 and uses the touchscreen for navigation, radio/CD, hands-free calls and vehicle-related information, such as usage. While it uses Android, only one app is available so far, Aha web radio. 

Smaller systems

For smaller cars, paying EUR 2,000 extra is not realistic, but there are also systems available for EUR 300. These lighter systems are often based on a standard navigation system, with an optional connected smartphone. 

Smart has both varieties. It offers a touchscreen system with TomTom navigation, which also displays vehicle functions such as climate control and average usage. A number of apps are included as well, such as Aupeo web radio and Glympse (sharing location). Smart's own gimmick is a user-generated database of parking places in which only a two-door Smart would fit (2.69m). 

Smart also provides a dashboard without touchscreen for users to connect a smartphone. The phone runs an app that communicates with car over Bluetooth. Functions such as climate control and music can then be controlled through the phone screen.

Smart said the system works well with all models of iPhone, but so far it's only tested the Samsung S4 and S5 for Android. Other models may incur problems. 

Caution over legal questions

Safety and legal liability are major concerns for the entire auto industry. Nearly all the manufacturers limit app use to areas that make driving more comfortable and safe, such as navigation and streaming music.

Some systems can read out SMS and emails, while other manufacturers have ruled this out. Tesla is a case of its own. Its Model 2 has a complete web browser in the dashboard, which can be used at any time, even while driving. It's questionable how long it can continue to offer this. 

There is less clarity about privacy questions and who owns the data generated by these systems. The continuous developments are throwing up a lot of questions as more and more cars are online all the time. 

The automakers assume the data is theirs, while others say it belongs to the owner of the car. This creates conflicts. The brand dealer would like to be able to use the information in order to offer preventive maintenance. The European Commission may have a problem with this, at it wants universal dealers to also have access. 

The data collection can impinge on personal privacy. Even vehicle data, such as location, could be considered personal data. It can be easily used to find out where a person is when, especially if it's a leased or company car. 

The EU is already working on laws and regulations for data protection and disclosing data breaches. These will also apply for connected car platforms. As the technical development of connected systems gathers speed, new regulations will not be far behind.

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