ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.
For all the talk of self-driving and connected cars, the simple task of using smartphone apps while driving remains frustrating as hell.
The great promise of in-car electronics—one that allows you to safely talk on the phone, text, listen to tunes and get directions while motoring down the highway—is still a dream. All too often, I find myself toggling my attention between the roadway, the car’s dashboard, and my iPhone as I drive, pick new songs, and peek at my phone’s navigation app.
Unfortunately, there’s little to suggest this situation is going to improve much in 2015.
Look In The MirrorLink, My Pretty
Four years ago, things looked very different. That’s when nearly 100 companies—including major automakers, smartphone-makers and mobile communication firms—produced MirrorLink, an open technology standard for porting a smartphone’s functions to dashboard screens, buttons, and the car’s steering wheel.
It was a great concept. “Rather than going with a fragmented approach for every handset manufacturer and every car manufacturer, we set up a universal open industry standard,” said Antii Aumo, the Finland-based marketing director for the Car Connectivity Consortium that oversaw MirrorLink. “We made the technology as generic as Bluetooth and WiFi.”
The idea was to make it so consumers could expect smartphone-type features in their car regardless of its brand, the make of their phone or its operating system. This was especially important given that cars can last a decade or longer, meaning that a single vehicle might easily last through 3-5 technology cycles.
It was a great vision, if a bit Pollyanna-ish. The CCC, after all, also expected car and phone makers to play well together. A common open framework, according to Aumo, would allow smartphone services to appear on your dashboard in a simplified and safe manner—while freeing app developers (inside car companies as well as independent app-makers) to innovate via MirrorLink.
Through The MirrorLink
“I’m sure that somewhere there are two guys in a garage coming up with wild and crazy things, new innovations for the car and driving,” said Aumo. “You and I have no idea what the crazy new apps [for driving] will be.”
And who doesn’t love innovation? The short anwer: Car companies who want to control every aspect of the driving experience.
In October 2014, Honda announced the launch of Honda Connect, its new MirrorLink-enabled smartphone connectivity service. It uses MirrorLink protocols, but they are in the background. The technology, design and user experience is all Honda Connect, which will first be put into service in 2015 on select Honda Civic models in Europe.
Other car companies, including Volkswagen, Subaru, and Toyota, are also utilizing MirrorLink—but the relevance of the open standard has been subsumed by a set of powerful competing interests that might be described in two words: Apple and Google.
Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto aim to take all the familiarity of Apple and Android apps and port it to the car with bigger fonts and icons, and limits on distraction. Just plug in your phone, and apps that followed Apple or Google guidelines for mapping functions to buttons on the car, will take over the dashboard screen.
The MirrorLink Crack’d From Side To Side
“MirrorLink missed an opportunity,” said Doug Newcomb, founder of the Connected Car Council, an industry organization. “Although frankly it’s not for lack of trying. Part of the blame could be from car companies dragging their feet, and long product cycle times.”
So while Honda only announced its MirrorLink-based product three months ago, its high-level message now appears to be about Apple and Google. “On a very basic level, we can tell you that we are bringing CarPlay and Android Auto to market in 2015 but the cars are to-be-announced,” wrote Angie Nucci, a Honda spokeswoman.
Hyundai, the Korean automaker, is also focused on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. “MirrorLink had limited success,” said Miles Johnson, manager of connected car publicity at Hyundai. “But it’s not quite where it needs to be.”
At CES 2015, Hyundai showed off a new head unit—the dashboard hardware—that integrates both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. When Hyundai first announced CarPlay, it was planned only for the company’s most expensive head units. But the new more affordable Hyundai-developed head unit will be capable of running both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
“Ferrari launched CarPlay, but nobody else has pulled the trigger,” said Johnson at Hyundai. “Our guys are working very hard to be first, but I can’t predict the future.” (Ferrari debuted CarPlay in the California T and FF models at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show.)
Consumer electronics move at warp speed compared to auto technology. Those longer development times, and difficulty with integrating disparate systems, are the culprit for delays with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which were supposed to debut in 2014. But that’s only a slight delay for the two 800-pound gorillas.
“Once those two companies came in, and laid a path, that was definitely a game-changer,” said Johnson. He believes that CarPlay and Android Auto are going to help sell cars, bringing customers into dealerships for demos.
Familiarity Trumps Innovation
The learning curve for car-based infotainment is very steep—as anybody who has taken a first spin through dashboard menus and voice commands of a new car will testify. “Our research indicates that the average customer will give you about 15 minutes to learn a system, and then they start to tune out,” said Hyundai’s Johnson. “If you can accomplish that with CarPlay or Android Auto, then you’ve accomplished something very quickly.”
While the familiarity is welcomed, it won’t stop Hyundai, Honda and nearly every other automaker from developing vehicle-specific apps. It’s a control and data access issue. Vehicle-specific apps are considered a core part of the car’s functions: things like emergency response, cabin pre-conditioning, parking apps, teen driving mode, and digital access to the owner’s manual. In fact, at CES BMW introduced the Connected Drive Store, allowing U.S. owners to purchase apps and other services directly from behind the wheel.
As the Detroit News reported earlier this month, German industrial and political leaders don’t want the country’s flagship industry to have its importance diluted, or have Google gain access to data on driving behavior and location. “The data that we collect is our data and not Google’s data,” Rupert Stadler, Audi’s chief executive, told the newspaper. “When it gets close to our operating system, it’s hands off.”
The takeaway: Innovation in car-based apps from third-party open-source developers are getting pinched by Google and Apple, who in turn, are getting squeezed (and delayed) by the automakers trying to develop their own smartphone ecosystem. It could take another few years for this to sort itself out.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, many drivers will continue to drive with one hand on the steering wheel and the other clenched to a smartphone.