Car Connectivity Nears A Fork In The Road

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The modern automobile amounts to a computer on wheels, but should it also be a rolling smartphone?

A few different factors have led us to this point. Smartphones are incredibly helpful traveling companions, but they’re also seriously distracting. And while their displays keep getting bigger, they’re still no match for the scale of an in-dash touchscreen.

The CE Week conference staged in New York last week by the Consumer Electronics Association (disclosure: a former freelance client of mine) illuminated two ways the car industry might solve this problem.

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One is to give the car a mobile broadband connection so that its apps can stay as up to date and aware as anything on a phone. Chevrolet showed off that concept in a pair of demo vehicles, each equipped with an AT&T LTE wireless connection — what General Motors plans to build into most of its cars and trucks starting with its 2015 model year.

In New York, GM representatives sketched out a variety of possible uses beyond navigation, search and Web radio. Some seemed a little silly; you don’t need a car to lend Wi-Fi bandwidth to a tablet in the back seat when any phone can do that. I was more intrigued by the idea of dashboard apps exercising their access to the car’s hardware — for instance, teaching you how to drive better or automatically looking up nearby gas stations when you reach a quarter of a tank.

A car can also accommodate a larger, more sensitive wireless antenna than any pocket-sized device.

But this concept suffers from two long-term defects. LTE costs money to provide, and while some of those expenses could be folded into other transactions (much as you don’t get a bill for a Kindle e-reader’s bandwidth), some of it would probably come in yet another telecom bill. And the long service life of most cars means you’d be looking at service calls to keep your vehicle’s connectivity current with upgrades to wireless technology.

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The other approach to car smarts is to have your phone lend its capabilities to the dashboard. So far, this has been done through a variety of proprietary interfaces — Ford’s Sync is the best-known, but there’s also Hyundai’s BlueLink, Chevy’s MyLink and Toyota’s Entune – that connect a phone’s bandwidth and sometimes its apps to the dash.

Having developers solve the same basic problem half a dozen times is not the most efficient solution. What you really want is a standard that everybody can support — and such a thing finally exists. MirrorLink runs on the same basic technology that lets you log into an office network and run desktop apps remotely, but it’s been scaled down and also simplifies the interface projected from a phone to the dashboard.

At CE Week, Pioneer showed off an updated version of the AppRadio stereo it debuted in 2011 that adds MirrorLink compatibility in addition to its earlier support for specific iOS and Android apps. The $500 AppRadio 3′s implementation of this standard could not be much simpler, with three big icons dominating the screen: Music, Location and Phone.

The Samsung phone connected to the stereo with a USB cable presented the same simple interface — one way to ward off distraction.

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But MirrorLink suffers from a lack of interest among car manufacturers and one smartphone vendor in particular — Apple, which prefers to build its own car-integration systems. It already offers voice-controlled interaction with some iPhone functions on cars that support Siri Eyes Free, and the upcoming iOS 7 includes an “iOS in the Car” feature that can project entire apps onto the dashboard screen.

Considering that, I have to think that anybody hoping for a single standard for phone-to-car connectivity will be asking “are we there yet?” for a while longer.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery