Smartphone users struggle connecting to in-car infotainment systems

Automakers are scrambling to create cars with modular systems to allow easy upgrades

As Toyota owners know, using Bluetooth to pair an iPhone to the in-car Entune infotainment system to use its bundled Internet apps doesn't work.

There's been abundant user complaints about Toyota's fussy Infotainment system in the blogosphere. Possible workarounds suggested by blog commentators include setting up the iPhone as a WiFi hot spot to wirelessly connect to the Entune system.

Toyota recommends that drivers simply plug their iOS device into the car's USB port.

According to market research firm IHS Automotive, Toyota sold 700,000 cars with Entune systems this year and is expected to sell about 1.1 million more in 2014.

Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst for infotainment systems at IHS Automotive, has tested Toyota's Entune system and describes it as "inconsistent" at best.

"You'd think it would be simple. It's all in one app. You download it and voila, you're ready to go," he said. "But the app still needs to interface with the [infotainment] head unit, and that doesn't always work well depending on which version of iOS, Android or which [hardware] device you have. You may experience a quick connection, or not."

In most cases, Boyadjis said, iPhone users have to connect to Entune with a USB cable to use the bundle of Toyota Internet apps, which include Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora and other data services such as local fuel prices, traffic and weather information.

Android users can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth through a DUN, or Dial-up Networking, profile. The iPhone can also use the DUN profile, though iOS version 7 has seen some problems through restrictions, Boyadjis said.

"Fortunately, Toyota has a SOTA (Software Over The Air) update protocol that will allow users to update their Entune software, once the problem is resolved," he said. "This is clearly is a key issue they need to resolve quickly."

Fix is on the way

The next generation of Entune systems, to be seen first in the new Toyota Rav4 that's slated to be rolled out in November, will let iPhones use Bluetooth to access the Internet apps, said Ken Parkman, national multimedia operations manager at Toyota.

"You'll no longer need a USB cable. You just have to download the app on a smartphone, Bluetooth pair the phone and open the Entune app on the phone and you're good to go," Parkman said.

The updated Entune system will be added to Toyota's Camry line in December, Highlanders in January and to the rest of the model lineup over the course of the next year, Parkman said.

"By the time the Highlander has it, about 60% of our volume will have adopted it," he said.

The problem of wireless access to mobile applications via vehicle infotainment systems is not limited to Toyota, although that company has experienced the most acute problems, Boyadjis said.

Competitive systems, such as Ford's AppLink and Chevy's MyLink, allow users to connect each application on an iPhone directly to the car's infotainment system head unit, or its brains. "That results in a more consistent user experience, but you give up things," Boyadjis said.

Toyota requires users to download the Entune app, which bundles specific application user interfaces that drivers can then connect to via Internet-enabled phones.

Toyota has struggled to educate owners that early versions of Entune wasn't supposed to be paired with mobile devices using Bluetooth wireless connectivity, according to Parkman.

"We recognized it was certainly an issue. I think the hard part is to be able to change. You can't change the hardware quickly, which is why it took a couple of years to generate our next generation of [Entune] systems. We would have loved to have adopted that function from first time it was launched," he said.

Because Toyota bundles access to specific Internet apps under one interface, the company can track app usage.

"They're able understand which apps are being used when and where and by which owners. You cannot do that by just synching to an app on your smartphone," Royadjis said.

If a driver connects to Pandora through a smartphone, there's no way for Toyota to distinguish whether a driver is using Pandora on his phone or on the car's infotainment system.

Mobile device integration a daunting task

As Royadjis points out, mobile device integration is among the most difficult issues facing the auto industry today.

"Take Chevy MyLink. There's a good chance your [mobile] device will work in the car, but it's just not 100%. Anyone who claims it's 100% is smoking something," he said.

High end automakers, such as Mercedes-Benz and Audi, offer in-car routers, which enable native Internet connectivity regardless of the driver's smartphone.

"That's certainly something we're looking at down the road," Parkman said.

Today, Mercedes-Benz offers a wireless router with its Mbrace2 infotainment system, allowing native access to online services such as Google Maps. A Search & Send feature allows drivers to send an address from Google Maps directly to the COMAND navigation system in the car.

Audi's infotainment system, Audi Connect, offers drivers access to Google's Local Search, Google Earth, headline news, local fuel prices, as well as mobile WiFi connectivity for up to eight people in the car.

One issue automakers need to address is keeping up with mobile device upgrades. For example, each time an updated Android, Windows or Apple phone is released, an infotainment system risks falling behind.

Most automobile manufacturers are two to four years behind the consumer technology curve, according to industry experts. It typically takes up to four years from when a vehicle is designed to the time it comes off the assembly line. Changing any one component is costly and requires vehicle design changes.

Then there's the issue of incremental mobile device upgrades.

When Toyota launched its Scion brand BeSpoke premium audio system with Aha smartphone connectivity in September, it was only a couple of weeks before Apple released its mobile iOS 7 platform. The BeSpoke system didn't have an interface, so it wasn't compatible with the iPhone 5, said Boyadjis.

"For whatever reason, Toyota wasn't able to get Apple to give them the device specification in time. It fizzled sales," Boyadjis said.

Modularity is key to upgrades

Scion addressed the issue in the 2.0 version of BeSpoke. But the experience demonstrates that automakers and mobile device makers can be out of sync in hardware and mobile software deployments.

One way to address automotive and mobile compatibility issues is through the use of modular infotainment systems, where each year the head unit can be upgraded. Eventually, even aftermarket infotainment units could be available to consumers.

Audi, for example, was able to upgrade its Connect infotainment system in European models of the A3 automobile from 3G to 4G wireless connectivity this year simply by switching a single chip in the head unit. That upgrade will be available in the U.S. next spring, said Brad Sterz, corporate communications manager for Audi of America.

The upgrade breakthrough came last year with Audi's rollout of a modular infotainment toolkit, codenamed MIB. MIB separates the infotainment functions into two hardware components: a Radio & Car Control (RCC) Unit; and an Informational & Entertainment (IE) system, which handles multimedia, navigation and online functions.

The IE module is based on Nvidia's Tegra-2 system-on-a-chip. In order to upgrade with more processing power and software, all Audi has to do is switch the chip.

"As new video processing chips come out, we can just swap in the new Nvidia chip instead of having to wait four or six years [for the next vehicle upgrade]," Sterz said.

Sterz said auto owner's expectations have shifted in recent years. They come to expect that the same functionality they have on mobile devices and household electronics will also be available in their vehicle.

"In the not too distant future, you'll have a MyAudi app to allow you to pre-select which music service you prefer, like iHeart Radio or Pandora. So, instead of having to go through screens [on your smartphone] to find the service, it will feed directly into your car," Sterz said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

FREE Computerworld Insider Guide: IT Certification Study Tips
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies