In my recent review of the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX car audio receiver with Apple Carplay and Android Auto, I lamented the fact that Pioneer was only offer the smartphone interfaces in its more high-end receivers. At $700, the 4100NEX is the most affordable receiver with this capability and includes a DVD drive and motorized face plate. It also has a tiny row of controls along the bottom edge for volume and mode selection.
I suggested that for people that want to use a smartphone interface, they are less likely to actually use disks or other media and Pioneer should offer a more basic unit with a fixed screen (not to mention a better display than the 4100NEX) and no disk drive.
It turns out they make just such a receiver. It even has a rotary volume knob! The problem is that consumers can’t actually buy this receiver. It’s found in the Scion FR-S that I’m driving this week. Of course Toyota isn’t yet supporting Android or Carplay so this unit doesn’t have that capability. However, if Pioneer would sell this head unit as a standalone with Android and Carplay for $200-250 I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it and I’d even buy one myself.
The week of January 7, 2007 was a hugely important preview of the future of cars and how we would interact them. In the span of three days, there were three major product announcements in three cities that all seemed distinct at the time but the convergence is now becoming clearer every day. The week kicked off with General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz revealing the original Chevrolet Volt concept at the Detroit Auto Show. Later that same day, then future Ford CEO Mark Fields joined Microsoft CEO Bill Gates on stage at CES in Las Vegas to announce the SYNC connectivity system. Finally, two days later Apple CEO Steve Jobs showed the world the iPhone at Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Each of those three products has evolved significantly in the last eight years and with each passing day we get closer to the fusion of them all, potentially in an Apple car. While that latter product is still likely years away from being announced, touchscreen smartphones are now ubiquitous with more than two billion in use around the world. They are so prevalent that we now expect to be able to use them anywhere and everywhere including behind the wheel. While plug-in vehicles currently represent only a tiny fraction of the world’s vehicle parc, they too will likely one day dominate and with the addition of autonomous capability our vehicles may well become nothing more than a place to consume content while being moved around.
As we roll into the 2016 model year, General Motors is finally about ready to put its 2009 bankruptcy behind it as it completes the launch of a full lineup of post-reorganization vehicles. In addition to all-new vehicles designed and developed in this decade, GM is also rationalizing its in-vehicle infotainment options which had become fragmented over the past four years. For Chevrolet, that means there will basically be two levels of infotainment under the MyLink brand.
The SYNC 3 home screen features three zones, Navigation, Audio and Phone, as well as a quick access function tray along the bottom making for a more straight-forward user experience.
In 2007, Ford changed the way we connect our mobile devices to our cars with the introduction of SYNC on the Escape. In 2011, Ford almost overnight destroyed the goodwill toward SYNC with the introduction of the hugely troubled MyFord Touch which was known internally as SYNC V2. While Ford made MFT much better over the last couple of years with software updates, it also began work on a complete reboot. The result of those efforts debuts this summer as SYNC 3 and the Fiesta and Escape will be the first vehicles to get this all-new connectivity and infotainment system.
I got my first hands-on experience in a vehicle with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Hyundai had a couple of new Sonatas equipped with a new Display Audio touchscreen head unit updated with the latest software to support the in-vehicle interfaces from Apple and Google. Recognizing that drivers increasingly rely on smartphones for entertainment and navigation, the Display Audio unit lacks both embedded navigation and a CD player, something that will likely become the norm in coming years.
The upcoming launch of Android Auto and CarPlay marks the most promising advance in infotainment systems since the January 2007 debut of Ford SYNC. Apple, Google and Microsoft have made tremendous progress in improving mobile device interfaces and capabilities since the reveal of the iPhone which came just two days after SYNC. Unfortunately, for the most part, automakers are still doing a pretty miserable job of designing the interfaces of their built-in infotainment systems but Google and Apple are hoping to fix that.
From the perspective of the automakers, both CarPlay and Android Auto actually function in a pretty similar fashion. In the case of Hyundai, when an Android or iPhone are plugged into the USB port, a corresponding icon appears on the center screen. Tapping this icon, brings up the CarPlay or Android interface. In order for this to happen, automaker engineers have to add some code to their head unit that acts kind of like device drivers on a computer. The software translates the respective control inputs available in that vehicle into standard signals for the respective mobile operating system.
Whether the car has a capacitive or resistive touchscreen or a remote control device with a non-touch screen, this abstraction layer of software translates the hardware signals and sends the the same messages to the phone. This way, the mobile device doesn’t really have know anything about the vehicle hardware and app developers only have to deal with the Apple or Android extensions once instead of coding for every automotive brand. Voice inputs are also redirected to the phone for interpretation by Siri or Google voice actions rather than whatever is built into the vehicle.
Once the mobile interface is activated, the phone and the cloud actually handle all of the hard work. The interface is generated by the phone and projected to the car display which is why both systems need to be connected via USB instead of Bluetooth.
For iPhone users
CarPlay produces a simplified version of the traditional iPhone interface with each page containing a grid of eight large icons on a black background and a visual representation of the home button that can be used to trigger Siri. Most of the currently available apps are default Apple apps including music, podcasts, Apple maps and messages although the usual suspect third-parties like Pandora and iHeartRadio are on hand as well. Switching apps or making a call requires a tap of the home button, just like the phone. A long press on the home button triggers Siri and whatever you say is sent directly to the phone via the built-in microphone in the car.
Overall the interface worked smoothly although the iPhone that was connected in the Sonata seemed to struggle to get a good data connection from the Hyundai stand which was centrally located in Cobo Center. That made it difficult for Siri to process queries and maps would only half load. Songs that were locally stored on the phone had no trouble playing.
For Robot fans
Android Auto brings up a Google Now style card interface that will be instantly familiar to Android users. The car screen gets the same stylized background images that appear on the phone’s Now screen. A persistent strip along the bottom of the screen includes icons that take you directly to Google Maps, home, phone, messaging apps and audio apps. Tapping the directions icon triggers navigation via the maps available through the phone. The headphone icon brings up a list of cards with links to each of the approved audio apps which includes Google Play Music, PocketCasts and more. Acceptable messaging apps will read out incoming messages and allow replies by voice input.
Like CarPlay, Android Auto ran smoothly powered by a year-old Nexus 5 phone. The Nexus had no connectivity issues and the engineer I sat with was able to to demo the sort of contextual voice search Google showed at last year’s I/O developer conference. While sitting in a car in downtown Detroit, he asked Google how the weather was in San Diego. After the response he asked “what are the hours of the zoo?” without specifying a location. Rather than giving the hours of the nearby Detroit Zoo, Android Auto read out the hours of the San Diego zoo and provided a link to directions.
Beyond just having a clean responsive interface, this ability to anticipate what information will need next based on what has been said, where the vehicle is or what time of day it is, can enable Android Auto to dramatically reduce the mental workload on the driver and minimize distraction on the road. Currently, Google is only supporting third-party apps for audio and messaging although additional categories such as other navigation apps are likely to be included at some future date.
Hyundai did acknowledge that automakers will have some influence over what apps are allowed to appear in the two competing car interfaces. Google was not yet ready to announce exactly what the process would be for these approvals although it will presumably happen through the Open Automotive Alliance which was announced at the 2014 International CES. Apple has not responded to any request for comment on the topic but they will likely maintain tight control over the app approval process just as they do on mobile devices.
Both Apple and Google had hoped to get their systems into vehicles by the end of 2014 but the process of testing and validating software in vehicles and making sure it meets all of the regulatory requirements is far more stringent than for phones. Most major automakers have publicly announced plans to support both platforms and Hyundai said they should launch later this summer on the 2016 Sonata and other vehicles. Some 2015 models will also be able to get a software update to provide support.
TI may have given up on phone and tablet sector but it’s still mobile with the OMAP5 and QNX-powered SYNC 3 from Ford
Ford led the auto industry with the 2007 introduction of SYNC, a quick and easy way to connect mobile devices and control them with voice commands. The system was relatively reliable and easy to use but when the time came for a followup in 2010, the automaker stumbled badly with MyFord Touch. Ford will attempt a reboot in 2015 with a completely new system dubbed SYNC 3.
Ford unveiled SYNC 3 and demonstrated it today at its Dearborn Product Development Center and it looks extremely promising so far. Like MyFord Touch which was known internally as SYNC 2, the new system is based around a touch screen display. Unfortunately the earlier system had a dark and cluttered user interface that was prone to frequent crashes and lockups and even after two major software updates was still slow. MyFord Touch also never incorporated AppLink to enable the control of smartphone apps, a feature that was available on the entry-level SYNC system.
As soon as SYNC 3 launches, the changes are immediately apparent. The bright new interface is dramatically simplified and easier to use. The look and feel seems to have taken inspiration from the work that Google has done one recent versions of Android although iPhone users won’t feel left out either.
When sampling the system on some demonstration bucks, the performance improvement was immediately apparent. Where a button press on the MFT screen would be met with a pause before any response would occur, SYNC 3 seems to respond almost immediately. The capacitive screen supports multi-touch and gestures like swipe and pinch-to-zoom. The Microsoft Auto Windows Embedded Platform that powered earlier versions of SYNC has been replaced with the same QNX system used by many other automakers. The whole thing is now running on a more modern Texas Instruments OMAP5 processor based on ARM Cortex A15 cores used in many smartphone chips.
The smartphone style keyboard includes predictive typing and the ability to learn from driver’s usage patterns
The SYNC 3 system also includes a built-in WiFi receiver that you can pair with your home network. Every few weeks, when the car is parked, it will automatically ping the Ford servers and look for updates, just like modern phones do. When updates are available, they will downloaded and installed automatically with no user intervention needed. No more mailing out hundreds of thousands of USB drives for Ford or visits to the dealer to re-flash the radio.
It’s way too early to tell how well this is all going to work when it arrives in new Ford vehicles beginning in 2015, but at this point it certainly looks promising and it can’t really be any worse than MyFord Touch can it?
At the 2014 Paris Motor Show this week, Honda and Nvidia come together to announce that the automaker’s new industry-first Android-based Honda Connect infotainment system would be powered by the Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip. While Honda is not actually the first automaker to announce an infotainment system that runs on Android, they should be the first company to actually bring such a system to market.
At the Geneva Motor Show back in March 2011, Saab showed off a concept car called the Phoenix with an Android-based system dubbed iQon.Unfortunately for Saab fans that was followed soon after by another period of insolvency and the car and iQon were never seen again.
Honda on the other hand doesn’t appear likely to go away anytime soon, so its new Connect system should arrive in early 2015 on updated European versions of the Civic, Civic Tourer and CR-V. There’s no word yet on when or if the new system will come to North American models.
“Nvidia has been providing processors for automotive applications for 10 years now and Honda is the 19th automotive brand to adopt our automotive-grade chips,” said Danny Shapiro, senior director, automotive at Nvidia. “The Tegra 3 SoC used by Honda is based on the same architecture previously used on smartphones and tablets but optimized for the automotive environment including temperature and shock resistance.”
Among the first applications for the Tegra 3 were the original 2012 Google Nexus 7 and the Tesla Model S which uses two of Nvidia’s chips, one for the massive 17-inch center console display and a second for the instrument cluster. Other Nvidia automotive customers include Audi and BMW.
Nvidia’s powerful graphics chips have been popular with video gamers for two decades and automakers are increasingly dependent on that kind of power for the complex entertainment interfaces and re-configurable instrument clusters.
Development of Honda Connect began well before the January 2014 announcement of the Open Automotive Alliance and Android Auto. Because of the testing and safety requirements in the auto industry, lead times to validate software for something like an infotainment system are much longer than in the phone business which is why the new Honda system is built on top of Android 4.0.4 which was initially released way back in October 2011 with the dessert code-name Ice Cream Sandwich. Honda added a custom interface to its Android implementation with a grid of six large buttons, similar to numerous other infotainment systems.
Honda Connect uses a seven-inch capacitive touchscreen to show off the navigation, radio, rear camera and other vehicle data. The system will include access to the Honda App Center for access to download compatible apps for use in the vehicle. These will presumably be conventional Android apps that have been vetted by Honda to ensure they are suitable for use on the go without distracting the driver.
The system comes pre-installed with the Aha Radio app for playing a variety of media and also includes support for MirrorLink on compatible phones to push the phone display to the vehicle.
Honda has not yet replied to inquiries for more information about the Connect system. Many of the automaker’s North American vehicles already support Apple’s SIRI eyes-free and Honda has announced plans to support both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s unknown at this time if the Android-powered head unit will include support for the two newer smartphone app conduits or if drivers will be restricted to apps from the App Center. Nvidia spokesman Alan Hall did say that the Android system is only for the European market at this time.