Cruising on the Clouds: How automakers are putting your car on the web, not getting the web on your car

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In-car radios have certainly come a long way. Ask any teen these days what a cassette player is and the only reply you’ll get is a strange, silent stare. Even CD players have taken a back seat in favor of iPod connectivity, USB drives, and Bluetooth streaming—all of which are starting to become standard equipment in newer vehicles. But with today’s technology on hand, we want to do a lot more behind the wheel than just listen to music.

So far, the only gizmos the auto giants have been able to add to the list in recent years are hands-free texting and calling, and in some countries, internet radio. Though impressive, none of these have really changed the way we drive. Seriously, there has to be more to in-car entertainment than this. Well, look no further, because they’re taking car-connectivity to the clouds; Cloud-based Infotainment Systems, that is. Best part is, you can now access just about everything through your smartphone.

HondaLink

 

FROM THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN

There are several brands currently working on their own cloud-based system, some of which have already made it into production. One of the first to make the big move is Honda with HondaLink, which is now available with the 9th generation Accord in the North American market.

HondaLink connects to your smartphone via Aha—a cloud-based digital content service app (not the Norwegian pop group from the 80’s). This allows the driver to access podcasts, POI listing from Yelp!, and most importantly, Facebook and Twitter feeds amongst others. The app is free and connects using your smartphone’s data plan.

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This technology though is not proprietary to Honda. Ford, Porsche, and Subaru, will soon be incorporating Aha into their own in-car entertainment systems and off er the same service. Then there’s Toyota’s own service called Entune. It works pretty much the same way as Honda’s solution, requiring one to download the Entune App Suite on their smartphone that feeds data to the vehicle. However, it does offer added functions such as navigation, search engine Bing, and data service that feeds info on fuel prices, sports, traffic, and weather. Heck, you can even book movie tickets with Entune. Imagine that.

The only drawback with Entune is that it uses the vehicle’s touch screen interface, which means taking your eyes off the road during use. This is contrary to HondaLink that provides all the info via audio so you can keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.

Both systems pair with their vehicles via Bluetooth and are available for BlackBerry, Android, and iPhone users. And no, they didn’t mention support for Windows OS. *chuckles*

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MERCEDES’ LOVE AFFAIR WITH APPLE

For some reason, the chaps over at Mercedes-Benz assumed that all their new customers use an iPhone. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to use Drive Kit Plus that it comes with. Available with all-new models such as the A-Class, E-Class, and S-Class in select countries, it turns your iOS device into the vehicle’s infotainment system. They then supplied the in-dash screen, rotary controller located on the center armrest, and an in-house developed interface.

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Drive Kit Plus connects to your iPhone 4, 4s, or 5 thru the Digital DriveStyle app that can be downloaded for free at the iTunes store. Thru this, you can access GPS navigation from Garmin, search function powered by Google, and tweet, post, share, or like while driving. Mercedes-Benz’s self-developed Drive Kit Plus can also be voice-controlled with Siri so you can keep both hands on the wheel.

The app also stores valuable vehicle info such as fuel consumption, odometer reading, and VIN number if ever the need to know arises. But our favorite feature of all is that it helps you find where you parked your German chariot in case you forget or are just too lazy to remember.

However, it does have one problem. The Drive Kit Plus does not connect wirelessly via Bluetooth. Instead, Mercedes-Benz insists on plugging your iPhone into a dedicated plug or dock, which could be inconvenient to some.

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WHAT LIES AHEAD

Not to be left behind, Volvo is developing their own cloud-based system and they’ve enlisted the technical expertise of fellow Swede Ericsson for the task at hand. Details are few and far in between, but what they’re saying is that it will be a stand-alone product and have its own downloadable apps to provide all the services offered by other systems. They failed to mention a launch date, except that they’re rushing to roll it out as soon as possible. So for the time being, they’re rolling out the framework in all new Volvos beforehand so it’ll be ready once the software is available.

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Third-party suppliers are getting into the fray as well. Garmin, better known for GPS navigation devices, is coming up with its own infotainment system named K2 that should find its way as an OEM-integrated unit by 2015. Apple, on the other hand, is keen on going a step further. They’re working on a Siri Eyes Free integration that could detect driver movement or gestures and use it to manipulate various vehicle functions. However, they’re tight lipped on the new tech and have yet to announce when or if it will ever see the light of day.

 

Words by Christopher Kho
First published in Gadgets Magazine, September 2013