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Infotainment opens up

The BMW i3 demonstrates how entwined vehicle systems and telematics can be. (BMW Group)

The BMW i3 demonstrates how entwined vehicle systems and telematics can be. (BMW Group)

A vehicle’s infotainment operating system can keep up with the Joneses only so well.

That is not a criticism of the automakers; they are fighting against a pace of innovation that is exceedingly fast – far faster than the development cycle of an automobile. Apple releases a new version of its iOS platform every year, and new version of Google's Android may arrive at double that pace, saying nothing of all the security updates and bug fixes in between.

By 2017, more than 60% of new cars in the US and Western Europe will have some sort of network connectivity, making it imperative to have cohesive, streamlined telematics systems that can be upgraded at minimal cost. Aware of this, auto companies are making some unlikely alliances to ensure their infotainment platforms stay fresh.

An open-source saviour?

Short OS lifecycles are only part of the challenge for auto manufacturers. The main issue is that car companies are not in the consumer technology business; they are in the transportation business.

"The phone and the car are very different devices," says Mark Boyadjis, senior infotainment analyst at IHS Automotive. Manufacturers, he said, want to build infotainment systems that mirror consumer electronics, but have much more to consider than smartphone makers.

Because infotainment systems are so closely linked to things like engine diagnostics or even some forms of engine management, automakers are less likely to rely on open-source software like Android to oversee the car's operating system. "If your infotainment system crashes, it's a potential safety issue," he said. And if the automaker’s product crashes, "it's their brand on the steering wheel."

To meet the technology demands of consumers, a band of hardware and software manufacturers joined with car companies in 2009 to create a unified operating system platform called GENIVI. The platform is a Linux-based system that allows auto companies to have 80-90% of an infotainment operating system already built, with the remaining 10-20% completely open to brand customisation.

GENIVI members consist of automakers such as Jaguar Land Rover, General Motors, Honda, BMW and Hyundai, and the platform also counts silicon, software and hardware companies like Intel, Delphi, Cisco and ARM among its users. The objective behind GENIVI is to have a large group of companies working together to build a cohesive, open-source infotainment platform that can speed up the rate of innovation for the entire industry.

According to IHS, the future of infotainment systems will be based on open-source platforms like GENIVI. About 54% of automotive infotainment systems are currently built on a QNX system, a Linux-like system owned by BlackBerry. Although GENIVI did not hold any infotainment market share in 2012, IHS expects it to grab about 27% by 2018.

But IHS notes that open-source software (OSS) has its share of issues. There are more patent and licensing issues with OSS, and vendors can have less of an incentive to finish projects. That may be why some companies choose to go in their own direction, Boyadjis says.

In telematics forums around the internet, Apple has been mentioned as a potential infotainment partner for Ferrari. Job postings have appeared Apple's website describing positions built around integrating iOS into automotive systems. Of course this could be further integration efforts for Siri's "Eyes Free" system. Asked about the prospects of an iOS-enabled infotainment system, Boyadjis was sceptical.

"I don't think it will go mainstream,” he said. “The biggest problem is that Apple won't open their OS system for someone else to play with," he added, citing the California company’s notorious reticence to giving outside programmers the keys to iOS’s back-end.

Peering down the road

Whether coming infotainment systems are built on OSS, proprietary software or a smartphone platform, auto consumers can expect rapid infotainment innovations over the next few years. While forecasting the infotainment experience a decade hence is slippery, in-car infotainment will certainly have become better integrated into a driver’s broader connected lifestyle. "The car is just another interface for access to information," Boyadjis says.