Here's why new car tech is four years out of date

Think you can upgrade your car's hardware? Not anytime soon.

As you pore over the technical features built into Ford's latest vehicles, one spec you'll notice in those that include a SYNC entertainment system is the 10GB hard drive for storing music.

No, they didn't drop a zero. That's a 10.

Ford isn't alone when it comes to offering skimpy hard drives. Most automobile companies are two to four years behind the consumer technology curve, according to industry experts.

So while you can buy a 1TB hard drive for your computer for less than $100, or get 16GB of flash storage on a basic iPhone for $200, don't expect that new car to match that kind of hardware anytime soon.

"The iPhone was introduced in 2007. The cars being sold in 2012 and 2013 were just being planned then," said Scott Fosgard, a spokesman for infotainment systems at General Motors.

Fosgard said the automobile industry has been shell-shocked by the speed with which technology has permeated its ranks.

In 2007, for example, infotainment systems ranked 25th on GM customers' wish lists. Today, infotainment is fourth on the list, according to Fosgard.

A long product cycle

While mobile technology evolves in a world of rapid product cycles, the auto industry has a longer product cycle curve -- much longer, as in five to seven years.

In part, that's because auto design and manufacturing involves meeting a lengthy set of specifications that, once tested for reliability, generally don't change during production.

With the exception of high-end cars, such as those from Mercedes-Benz and the electric Tesla, most car manufacturers don't even allow owners to upgrade their car's hardware as it ages. Some infotainment system upgrades now offered by major manufacturers require owners to bring their cars into the dealership.

"Imagine if you had to go to Best Buy to upgrade the software on your phone?" said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner.

Last March, Ford began mailing out MyFord Touch upgrade packages with software updates to more than 300,000 customers. The packages included a USB flash drive with the updated software, a notification letter, detailed instructions for the 60-minute download, and an updated user guide.

"Navigation-equipped vehicle owners also received an updated SD card with all-new, updated map data. Drivers had the option to go to the dealer to have it installed if they wanted to, but they could also do the upgrade themselves at home," a Ford spokesperson wrote in an email to Computerworld.

While car companies say their manufacturing and test cycle places them about two years behind the consumer technology curve, Koslowski said it's really closer to four years.

"The industry is trying to figure out how to accelerate bringing technology into automobiles," Koslowski said.

Spotify
Spotify, the leading on-demand music streaming service providing access to a catalog of more than 20 million songs globally, is now compatible with Ford SYNC AppLink for simple hands-free, voice-activated entertainment while driving. (source: Ford)

Much of the tech lag time in the automobile industry has to do with self-imposed and government-required reliability standards. Consumer electronics have far lower standards when it comes to temperatures and shock resistance. Not only do car companies have to ensure the technology works, but tech manufacturers have to build to a stricter set of standards.

"Inside your vehicle, technology has to be able to live from 70 degrees centigrade to minus 40. Your phone and computers don't have to meet those requirements," said Jim Buczkowski, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow and director of Electrical and Electronics Systems at Ford Research and Innovation.

"It does wind up costing us more to meet those specs, too," Buczkowski added.

For example, electronic circuitry in automobiles receives a special conformal coating material to protect it from moisture, dust, chemicals and temperature extremes.

Why can't we upgrade our cars?

But shouldn't consumers be allowed to upgrade their infotainment systems -- perhaps change out motherboards, hard drives or even wirelessly upgrade the software in them?

Kathy McMahon, lead engineer for radio systems on Chevrolet and Buick, said while it's possible to enable modular infotainment systems, creating a standard for upgrading tech across so many models makes it difficult to execute.

For example, high-end cars tend to segregate pieces of an electronic communications system, such as rear camera views, stereo systems, clocks, pop-up vehicle warnings and in-car mobile phone services, while lower-end cars aggregate those amenities on one unit.

"When you buy a consumer electronic device, you know it will be expendable. It's going to be replaced in a timely manner. The reason you can't just upgrade like that in a car is that it's hooked to a $30,000 transportation device," McMahon said.

Over the next several years, however, manufacturers will begin allowing navigation systems and their map information to be upgraded via wireless connectivity, said Koslowski. Those upgrades may also extend to other features down the road.

For example, Chevy has announced that it will begin offering 4G LTE connectivity in its 2015 models, which go on sale in next year. That, said Fosgard, will be a watershed moment in the industry.

GM also announced at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show its Flexible App Framework. When rolled out later this year, it will allow software developers to access the company's APIs and create new functionality for the infotainment systems in GM vehicles.

"What I love about that is my car has the potential to be my [web] portal," Fosgard said. "We're starting to redefine what a car is. It's coming fast."

Mobile device add-ons

The other trend is toward allowing a driver to connect smartphones or tablets to an infotainment system and allow it to feed the data in.

The cloud is also becoming more important in vehicle data access, either by leveraging your smart phone or using 3G wireless through an embedded antenna. For example, all vehicles that allow cellular connectivity can connect to the Pandora streaming music service.

"That's going to really drive further trends in the auto industry where you'll probably see less and less hardware in the car, at least from a data storage perspective," Koslowski said. "Ford SYNC ... gives you access to the Amazon cloud to download your digital content directly to your car over your stereo."

AppLink
Ford drivers with SYNC AppLink now control Glympse on their smartphone and send their location to friends using simple voice commands. (source: Ford)(

And, while wireless will continue to permeate car tech, it's not a silver bullet. There are still far too many parts of the U.S. that don't have sufficient cellular coverage for every network, and -- not surprisingly -- leaving a driver stranded in an area with insufficient or bad data is something car companies try to avoid. So onboard data storage will continue to be a necessity.

Chevrolet's MyLink navigation system, for example, allows drivers to connect their compatible smartphone via Bluetooth. Once connected, drivers can stream audio, and make and answer phone calls.

Most automakers now at least offer USB ports that allow drivers to connect their mobile device or a portable hard drive so they can access personal content.

Oil change and an upgrade?

Another possibility that would allow vehicle upgrades over time is by building informatics systems that can be replaced during a car's lifetime. After a few years, an owner would simply pull the module out and stick in a new one, Koslowski said.

By building systems to be modular and upgradable, car manufacturers could breathe new life into used or leased vehicles, Koslowski said. "If you can upgrade a returned leased vehicle, guess what? They can charge more money for them...," she said.

Buczkowski, however, sees that as a difficult proposition, at best.

"Aftermarket products do not have to meet the same specs or warranties that a car does," he said. "Electronics often have a 90-day or at most a 12-month warranty, and that's only covering workmanship.

"We still find that the vast majority of [customers] are very intolerant of anything that goes wrong in their car," Buczkowski said.

Even the move to add Bluetooth connectivity to their cars earned Ford criticism from some customers.

"On phones, Bluetooth is not all that rock solid. That's an area we suffer from. And, we get knocked by our customers because they want a rock-solid experience in their cars," Buczkowski said.

This article, Here's why new car tech is four years out of date, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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