Silicon, Steel and Smartphones
The advent of connected in-vehicle infotainment systems has added a new dimension to vehicle buyers' decision matrix, and a new demand to the many challenges automakers already face. While it is unlikely that buyers will choose a particular vehicle only for its infotainment system, these systems do factor increasingly into purchase decisions. It is quite probable that buyers will now strike a vehicle off their evaluation list if it does not include an attractive and viable infotainment system, in the same way that a few generations ago they might have passed up a vehicle that did not include a radio.
Automobile development and lifecycles are measured in years, even decades, but new consumer electronics are launched, upgraded, and sometimes even rendered obsolete in months. Consumer electronics are also easier and less expensive to replace than cars. This is certainly true of smartphones, which now work (and may sometimes compete) with in-vehicle head units to bring drivers and passengers the most compelling in-vehicle infotainment systems possible.
Figure 1: Comparison of vehicle and smartphone lifespans.
Manufacturers are thus faced with reconciling the development- and lifecycles of their vehicles and the lifecycles of the rapidly becoming ubiquitous smartphone. Unlike older generation cell phones, whose functionality did not go far beyond making and receiving calls, and sending and receiving text messages, smartphones are designed to do just about everything or more that an in-vehicle infotainment system can do. Conversely, in-vehicle systems are increasingly becoming connected; they can now do just about everything that a smartphone can do — except fit in a pocket or purse.
These developments appear to offer the best of both worlds: consumers can get what they want, either from their in-vehicle system or from their smartphone. Ideally, the user experience should be seamless. For example, toddlers watching a movie in the living room on Saturday morning can be pulled from the living room floor, plunked into their car seats and continue watching the movie on the way to Gramma's. The reality is not quite so rosy, however.
The difficulty and the cost of building and — just as importantly, maintaining — such seamless solutions are considerable, though the cost of ignoring the problem is quite likely far greater. No user seems to want to manage multiple devices and sources, and maintain distinct phone contacts, music and video libraries, games, and so on in the house, in the car, and on every smartphone in the household. Any automaker (and perhaps smartphone vendor) who ignores this reality does so at his peril.
Seen in the context of engaging vehicle buyers in a positive user experience, the vehicle-smartphone problem has two parts: how best to integrate in-vehicle systems and smartphones in the vehicle, and how to ensure that the integration strategy will remain viable throughout the life of the vehicle and multiple generations of smartphones — not to mention as yet unknown applications for these smartphones.
The solutions currently being discussed and implemented range from turning the head unit into little more than a conduit for whatever the smartphone passes through it to screens and speakers, to handing all control over to the head unit, which uses the smartphone as little more than a conduit to the cloud, or does not use it at all.