Status quo under fire: The current state of infotainment
There is a hell lot of things happening with in-car systems for entertainment and information. The market is so crowded with offerings, many of which are immature or not quite tangible, yet, the anticipated potential can’t be overlooked. The complexity of the ecosystem is well known and so are the challenges that have to be looked after before we can call infotainment as a ‘must-have’ feature in our cars.
What is the best approach to deliver a refreshing in-car experience for car OEMs? What is the degree of acceptability amongst users at present? In a discussion with Andy Gryc of CX3 Marketing, Shamik Ghosh explores the current status of infotainment applications and the ways it can make driving a joyful experience without adding to any distraction. Andy is a well-known and well-connected automotive technology evangelist and is the co-founder of a marketing and consultancy firm, CX3 marketing. He was recently co-chair of the W3C Automotive Business Group for standardizing HTML5 in the vehicle.
What influenced you to join the entrepreneurial bandwagon?
I saw a big unfulfilled need. My co-founder Nancy Young and I worked the majority of our careers in high-tech companies, and we consistently noticed how marketing folks and engineers speak a different language. And how companies have a tough time finding people who really know the two disciplines? So we created a company that is built on 30 years in engineering and 25 years in marketing—and our passion for clear communication between the two. Automotive is a focus for us as we’ve had a great deal of experience in that space.
What are your views on the current market status of infotainment and automotive apps?
The automotive industry is clearly on the edge of a revolution. The public is finally becoming aware of infotainment as something beyond a “GPS”, and this is becoming a factor in purchase decisions. All the OEMs are executing a strategy to bring apps to the car, and a burgeoning number of startups and established non-auto players want in. Smartphone players have gone from a toe in the water to diving in head-first. OEMs will be challenged to differentiate their infotainment offerings and maintain their brand. Tier1-2 suppliers will be challenged to pursue new business opportunities and evolve, or risk being marginalized. Smartphone makers will be challenged to accept liability risks and app makers will be challenged to develop safe apps. The industry is being shaken and consumers stand to benefit from it.
In your opinion, what is the key to a novel UI/UX design for in-car infotainment systems? How helpful have ADOBE AIR and OpenGL been for the same?
I don’t think design novelty in infotainment systems is the problem. Creating a UX that considers human-factor issues while not contributing to driver distraction is. The interfaces need to be simpler than most currently are; this actually drives less novelty. People prefer not to learn brand new interfaces unless necessary. The “smartphone invasion” is happening because people prefer that their cars and phones work the same. Making this possible without making the system unsafe is the challenge that must be solved.
Adobe Air and OpenGL are enabling technologies—the user shouldn’t be able to tell what tool is used to create a UX. But they both have had important contributions to the field of automotive UX design. Adobe Air was the first tool that made people realize that the workflow between the HMI designers and the final embedded system required streamlining. Despite Adobe Air being overtaken by the HTML5 wave, it was the first tool to allow designers to directly create better user interfaces. And prior to OpenGL ES being adopted across the industry, the developer was reliant on the silicon vendor to provide proprietary graphic libraries. For the most part, OpenGL unshackles developers, tools and frameworks from GPU selection.
Do you think an ‘open-source’ standard for infotainment, the one like GENIVI is working on, would be beneficial in the long-race?
Potentially, but this really isn’t an open source or a standards issue per se. There are a lot of parallels between the current automotive ecosystem andthe phone ecosystem prior to the domination of Apple and Google. Every handset had its own OS and every carrier their own ecosystem—it was a complicated environment that did not encourage growth from the outside. Just like in automotive today, it wasn’t feasible for developers to re-create the same app on numerous different platforms. An automotive infotainment platform like GENIVI would be beneficial in the long run if it can dominate the field, reducing the external barrier to entry. However, the same could also be said for a proprietary solution that is a de facto standard. Ubiquity is what’s crucial.
HTML5 is often considered as ‘THE’ solution for automotive app development. Is this assertion in sync with the car OEMs and 3rd party app developers?
As I was previously a co-chair for the W3C’s automotive efforts, I may be biased. But there’s a lot going on with HTML5: GM and Mazda have developer programs constructed on HTML5. Companies like Elektrobit, Intel, OpenCar, and QNX are providing HTML5-based solutions to the market. And the W3C continues its work on standardizing HTML5 automotive APIs. Auto companies like BMW, Continental, Ford, GM, Hyundai, JLR, LG, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Visteon, and VW are closely watching this work. Is HTML5 the only solution? Of course not—the OEM app landscape is quite fragmented. But HTML5 is one of the only in-vehicle development tools that has traction across multiple OEMs. Even if the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA) swings the balance of head-units over to Android, it’s important to note that HTML5 apps can run on Android or iOS platforms, which makes them a relatively safe development bet to make.
In such a multi-stakeholder and diverse ecosystem, how important do you find the mergers and strategic alliances being formed between OEMs, content providers, wireless carriers and the app development community?
Mergers and alliances have the potential to create interesting inflection points however, in reality, they typically don’t. Take for instance, the Ford acquisition of Livio. Even if Ford decided to open up Livio to other OEMs like they did with Sync, would it gain widespread adoption? The same question could apply to Sprint Velocity—will it break out beyond Chrysler? The likely answer is no. OEMs tend to have a “not invented here” philosophy. In my opinion most mergers and alliances solve practical business problems in bringing solutions to market but they don’t reduce the diverse nature of the ecosystem .You still end up with independent vertical silos.
What are the challenges that have to be surpassed to make infotainment and in-car apps a worthy investment?
It depends on which party is making the investment.
For the OEM, an app store is not a worthy investment by itself but a table-stake to prevent the erosion of market share. The challenges that OEMs need to surpass are many. They have to cost-effectively build an embedded system with the right flexibility, create an SDK and infrastructure to enable the apps, and energize an app ecosystem. They need to weigh this herculean effort of building their own solution versus the loss of differentiation by adopting someone else’s. Internal OEM champions will have to continually convince their own organization of the merits of bringing an app store—a decidedly non-automotive construct—to life against the backdrop of a risk-adverse culture. The challenges are also numerous for app developers. The proliferation of tools, languages, and SDKs makes it virtually impossible to create an app that targets multiple brands. App developers require consistent access to the vehicle features that can make their app interesting and unique. They need to suffer through long courtships with the OEMs that have no guaranteed payback. And they need to find a way to get a return on their investment that’s not dependent on the app’s price. Automotive volumes are too low for aggressively low app pricing, and consumers are unlikely to pay orders of magnitude more.
When might we see in-car infotainment systems as the ‘must have’ feature for every car that is going to be rolled out in the market?
2018. I believe CarPlay, OAA, and their link to consumers’ Apple and Android devices will be key to broad customer adoption. CarPlay was officially launched this year. OAA has not yet publically released their plans but is expected to sometime later this year. Both will be widely adopted by OEMs. Assuming a shortened development lifecycle of 1.5 years enabled by the consumer electronics muscle, this puts most CarPlay or Android-based systems out by 2016. Early adopters will buy these first systems but another year or two will be needed for widespread consumer acceptance. Somewhat ironically, this may be helped along by NHTSA. Their ruling on rear-view visibility requirements is being phased in over the next four years with 100% penetration being mandated by 2018. Compliance will be largely satisfied by new mirror designs but the ruling may also encourage an increase in IVI-capable screens where the rear-view camera and infotainment screens are one and the same.
For more on automotive infotainment, please refer to the latest edition of Smart Automotive magazine.