How Apple could drive in-car systems

I'm thinking about in-car entertainment systems. I've been watching third-party firms and vehicle makers in their attempts at integrated iEntertainment systems for years. I think there's opportunity here -- for Apple [AAPL].

Apple already works directly with auto companies including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Nissan, Toyota, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Audi, Honda, Renault and Volkswagen. Apple also works with makers such as Harman Kardon, Pioneer, JVC and Alpine.

The in-car entertainment system market overall has seen some decline in the last couple of years, but digital audio, GPS positioning and multimedia-savvy solutions are helping the industry turn around. Today, 10 percent of car radios sold in Western Europe have connections for MP3 players, for example.

There's no doubt that smart devices are disrupting numerous industries.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Apple's drive by

Systems which offer iPod or iPhone integration are quite successful, at least judging by the number of such systems available out there.

These include dedicated 'Made for iPod/iPhone' systems, units equipped with a compatible USB port and gadgets including FM receivers.

All these aim for a user-focused finesse which isn't quite possible without ownership of the software. The most succesful designs are those which integrate with the Apple device, such as the recently-introduced TuneLink Auto.

TuneLink Auto lets you stream audio to your car stereo using Bluetooth, FM or a cable. It is controlled by a free TuneLink application, which sets the channel of the FM transmitter and can adjust your Bluetooth settings.

Another attempt comes from Oxygen Audio, the O'Car audio system takes iPhone integration in a different direction. It uses the iPhone as the control system, just slip it into the car box.

"A downloadable app controls the entertainment system, offering AM/FM/RDS radio, 4 by 55 watt amp and subwoofer control, and also provides seamless app multitasking," Cnet informs us.

It also offers hands-free calling Bluetooth capabilities, but has one limitation, "You won't be able to access programs on your phone using voice commands."

Giving driver's voice

It isn't hard to imagine how an intelligent voice activation system could be evolved for in-car entertainment, perhaps along the lines of Google Voice.

Imagine your iPhone was able to query voice recognition modules held at Apple's central servers, perhaps using technology licensed by Nuance. This could be useful for translation services, detailed queries, even taking notes as you drive. (Apple co-founder Woz recently recanted claims Apple had acquired Nuance -- could this have been a licensing deal instead?)

Apple already has a capable solution for voice commands -- VoiceOver.

On the Mac, this "includes groundbreaking new features such as gesture support, braille display mirroring, web spots, and spoken hints. It also offers frequently requested features including autospeaking web pages, "read all," web page summary, web table support, user-created labels, customizable verbosity, and more," says Apple on its website.

Connectivity is critical.

Obviously, Apple's devices already have this. Built in car Wi-Fi shipments are pegged to reach 7.2 million in 2017. This could be an underestimate.

After all, if your in-car entertainment is build around a connected device, then tethering systems are all that might be required. As the fuss and bother over AT&T's cruel restriction on these proves, tethering's just a software patch away.

Ford is turning its vehicles into Wi-Fi hot spots with the next generation of its Sync in-car connectivity system.

"Marvell Technology and Harman Automotive in August announced integrated Wi-Fi connectivity via Marvell Mobile Hotspot (MMH) technology, with the 2010 Audi A8 as the first vehicle on the market to feature the factory-installed mobile hotspot," iSuppli adds.

All these advanced features offer some risk to road safety. Perhaps systems will emerge which integrate protective measures to help prevent drivers sending a voice-made text message while driving at high speeds.

"The mind can only do one thing at once when driving -- it's been long published in scientific journals. People who say that in-car technology is not distracting to drivers just don't know the science of the brain," warns David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah (via UPI).

Driving solutions? There's an app for that

Not all the in-car systems need to impact on drivers when driving, General Motor's has already released software that lets iPhone owners unlock doors, check tire pressure, or even start a car. The software works with 20 new Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC models.

Ford, Nissan and BMW are also developing technology to let cars run apps, download music and video, and more. Alpine Electronics and other makers are also getting in on this act.

The number of global users of automotive apps may rise to more than 28 million in 2015, from 1.4 million in 2010, says ABI Research.

What we haven't seen yet is the evolution of a fully Apple-like implementation of the disparate elements that will constitute the future for car entertainment.

Apple has building blocks -- take the iPod Out feature of iOS 4 (above), which enables third party devices to show what's happening on the iPod's screen, including the iPod app on an iPhone.

Future in-car systems

What might a fully integrated Apple-focused in-car entertainment system do?

One day your vehicle's entertainment system will be commanded by your voice. It will offer music to everyone and video to all passengers bar the driver.

You won't need a DVD player -- you'll have video on your device, and you'll be able to select and purchase or at least stream fresh titles from online services of all stripes.

In the US, this will in future mean it will be completely normal to watch BBC coverage in your car, once the broadcaster launches its iPlayer system outside of the UK next year.

The system will deliver in-car streaming audio from the likes of Pandora, Spotify or (perhaps) iTunes.

These future systems will integrate solutions such as Tom-Tom: GPS positioning, maps and directions, in-car prompts for places of interest, and the capacity to download information (guidebooks, perhaps) about where you are going while you are travelling there.

You'll even be able to download and play language lessons, or perhaps enjoy an in-car translation service.

All these things are possible right now.

(It is interesting to reflect that a recent GfK survey found that portable navigation systems sales have tripled in the last two years.)

Your car entertainment system will act as a WiFi/3G hub, enabling use of non-connected devices in-car. Everyone will be online if they want to be.

Further down the road (sic) these systems may soon build-in the capacity to determine your driving patterns (using their array of built in accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors) so will be able to warn you if you are driving erratically, advising you to pull over if your driving patterns show you are tired, for example.

This, for example.

When you leave your car your car will close down, when you approach it will open for you, using NFC-based solutions. It is possible your vehicle's key will also be a wallet, enabling you to pay for goods or services with a flick of the device. You may also be able to automate payments for tolls, parking and so on.

This begs the question:

Despite Apple's partnerships with existing players in this sector, could Apple do a better job working alone?

Or could it benefit from making some aquisitions, such as (for example) Tom-Tom (for its GPS and mapping solutions), Alpine (for its existing solutions and distribution) and Harman Kardon (because of Apple's long association with that firm?)

At risk: Should Apple leave this multi-billion dollar market in the hands of its partners, how long will it be until a fully-integrated Android solution comes in and eats Apple's lunch?

How do you see things evolving? What would you like future in-car systems to be able to do. I'd like to invite you to drive by again, so please feel free to follow me on Twitter or RSS.   

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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