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How Apple Has Transformed Automotive Electronics

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPod in 2001, he knew it would change the way people interacted with their music, what he did not know was how much the device would change the way automakers and suppliers look at in-vehicle entertainment.

When you have more than 100 million adoring fans, you’re likely to have a lasting impact on the world. That might be a massive understatement when it comes to the iPod, which has not only transformed the music industry, but has caused automakers and suppliers to scramble in response to its success. “We were surprised by the ultimate volume it attained,” admits Mike Kane, director of feature innovation and advanced technology strategy at Chrysler. More than six years after its initial debut, iPod continues to fly off store shelves—in the first half of 2007 sales exceeded 31 million units—and the auto industry is still chasing this success with varying levels of accomplishment. Some OEMs are installing auxiliary audio jack ports that accommodate iPod connections, while others are offering fully integrated iPod adapters that allow customers to select music genres, individual songs and podcasts directly from their steering wheel controls or the audio system head unit itself. Still, others are lacking any offering.

The iPod is the latest example of how far the auto industry has yet to move in order to progress at the speed of the consumer electronics industry. Both OEMs and suppliers are running at break-neck pace to assure they’re not caught behind the curve yet again. “We’re constantly looking for what is the next iPod. We do a lot of market scouting and talking to other consumer electronics companies. We also use a lot of proprietary research in the form of clinics and guerilla research—going into a big box retailer and talking to people who are tech savvy and watching what they do,” says T.C. Wingrove, senior manager of North American innovation for Visteon. Doing the research is one thing, making products that are cutting edge is yet another.

 

Same Old Story

Trying to keep up with the pace of the consumer electronics industry—consider the second-generation iPod arrived less than a year after the first, while the third hit the market a mere 10 months later—has been an age-old problem for the auto industry, which continues to run at a laggard’s 24- to 36-month cycle time. “It does take us three years, on average, to get a system embedded into a vehicle, and by that time most of the electronics industry has moved onto the next-generation,” says Chrysler’s Kane. The use of embedded storage devices, such as Chrysler’s MyGig system, along with various connectivity solutions for portable devices, is likely to help the industry keep pace. Problem is, most of the solutions don’t really keep up but are stop-gap measures meant to keep the industry in the game. “We’re going to have to continue to develop standards that link these devices with the vehicle in the short term, and Bluetooth helps us,” says Visteon’s Wingrove of the short-range wireless technology standard supported by companies ranging from Microsoft to Motorola. Suppliers like Visteon are also forming closer links with consumer electronic developers like Apple to assure upcoming vehicle infotainment systems will be compatible with next-generation devices. Visteon, in fact, has an agreement with Apple that requires the company to provide updates to the iPod standard to the auto supplier within a 24-hour period. 

 

On Tap

Even as automakers and suppliers continue to grapple with the prolonged product development cycles, innovation moves along. Chrysler’s Kane is keenly aware of this and predicts OEMs will meet the demands of buyers when it comes to living on the cutting edge of electronics. He says connectivity of portable devices will continue to increase, particularly for buyers of vehicles in the sub-$30,000 price category, while higher-ticket vehicle buyers will demand more embedded electronic options on their vehicles. Demand for connected navigation systems, which provide real-time connection to traffic data centers to avoid congestion and accidents, will skyrocket, along with features that will connect the vehicle to wireless networks to download music and video on-demand. From a supplier perspective, Wingrove predicts the next five years will present minor changes to vehicle entertainment systems, focused on better connectivity solutions for portable devices that will improve music quality and allow storage of data and music directly into the vehicle. High-definition radio will also continue to populate the market, while the advent of WiMax wireless broadband technology will make the delivery of off-board content easier. Caution builds, however, when the discussion turns to long-range views of in-vehicle electronic systems. Visteon’s Wingrove does not share the widely discussed idea that the vehicle may become another node on the information highway connecting the home and office. “We have to ask ourselves how difficult will it be for consumers to realize this before we make any promises,” he says, noting most consumers have to call the Geek Squad when trying to connect some of the most basic peripherals to their home computer systems, never mind connecting those systems with a vehicle. “This is an issue that OEMs are going to have to struggle with because the complexities could impact the initial quality results and warranty costs. This introduces the opportunity for bad things to happen,” Wingrove says. He’s confident the future will require vehicles provide drivers with real-time information and traffic data, while at the same time making the human/machine interface (HMI) easy to operate and understand. “We’re looking at how we make the interaction with the interface more life-like through the use of haptics,” or a tactile feedback system, Wingrove says. He also suggests that the simplicity of the iPod’s HMI proves that interfaces do not need to be complex to be enjoyable—a welcome change from the unnecessarily complex HMIs that have been pushed by OEMs in recent years. “Future vehicle electronic systems are going to have to be stylish and have a great HMI, just as the iPod does.”

 

Could Apple’s Influence Reach Even Further?

Is it possible for Apple to change yet another aspect of automotive electronics? Some experts say they already have with the new iPhone, which is much more than just a music player and a cell phone. Its WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities, Safari web browser and Google maps consolidate the elements of a complex telematics system in one device.

What’s a telematics provider to do? Raise the bar. While iPhone will be able to link to the Internet and transmit real-time traffic data wirelessly, it will not be able to link with the vehicle’s control systems to alert the driver of potential problems with vehicle operation, nor will it be able to call local authorities in the event of a collision. Those features, which have been launched various providers, will remain the purview of embedded telematics systems.

Hughes Telematics, which provides telematics services to Chrysler, is preparing to embark on a massive investment in new geosynchronous satellite systems by 2012 capable of handling two-way communication between the vehicle and the company’s support staff. ATX, which provides services to BMW and Mercedes-Benz, is also investing heavily in WiFi and WiMax technology to improve vehicle communication. The trend is a move away from reliance on cellular phone systems, which have proven to be somewhat unreliable, especially in remote locations.

The ability to conduct two-way satellite communication paves the way to transmit vast amounts of data directly to the vehicle, which could provide a way for automakers to download updates to the vehicle’s ECU or other electrical components without the consumer having to visit a dealership service department. Likewise, vehicles would be able to communicate directly with the OEM and the individual dealership to schedule appointments for repairs if the vehicle’s diagnostic system identifies a potential problem with the vehicle. While OnStar currently offers a similar service, Hughes Telematics president Erik Goldman says these future systems will go one step further, by allowing real-time navigation, where traffic congestion will be directly inputted into the system, while allowing advertisers to send a message promoting their businesses along the route. “We will offer ubiquity of coverage, while at the same time providing a wide range of neat services down the road by opening the whole intelligent highway capability people have been talking about for years,” Goldman says.

The use of satellite technology will also pave the way for multicasting, which can tailor messages and information feeds to individual vehicle owners and other subgroups. “Imagine an engineer at the OEM wants to pull specific data out of a subset of vehicles in a particular model year with a particular option package and they want to further define that group by geographic location. They can collect diagnostic information and have that sent directly back to them through the satellite system,” Goldman adds, noting this level of data transmission could not be handled through an external device like iPhone.

So, while Apple may be able to point to its influence on vehicle entertain-ment systems it will likely have a much harder time taking a bite out of the telematics sector.