22 December 2010

Automakers grapple with New-Age dilemma: software or hardware?

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Ford Sync
A somewhat older but no less relevant article by Bill Visnic on how automakers are diverging around the question of how to approach the onboard “infotainment” revolution.

“For each OEM, the basic decision about infotainment is this: whether to “embed” most of the enabling hardware and software for wireless communications into the infrastructure of the vehicle, essentially creating their own mobile devices — or to minimize such integration and concentrate on producing the best possible interfaces with cell phones, smart phones and other devices consumers already are using and bringing into the vehicle.

Ford sits more or less at one end of the spectrum with Sync, whose strength on a practical and marketing basis seems to be that the system makes it easy to use already-favorite wireless devices and programs in Ford’s cars. […]

On the other end of the scale is GM, which committed itself mainly to an embedded strategy nearly two decades ago with OnStar, building the service into its vehicles — and basically has stuck with that approach since then.”

In setting its strategy, Viscnic says, each OEM is wrestling with the following realities:

  • The demographics of the customer: Unanimously, OEMs see interest in heavily embedded devices and systems being stronger with older people and higher in luxury segments.
  • The rate of change: Automakers have long had difficulty keeping up with the incredibly fast pace of change in digital technology compared with the relatively slow speed at which new systems and technologies take root in vehicles and with the overall product cycle of cars. But now the tension is getting worse.
  • The ubiquity of mobile devices: Seventy percent of mobile-phone use occurs inside vehicles, so “a responsible OEM” must consider how consumers interact with handsets and other peripherals in the vehicle. Yet smart phones at this point comprise only about 20 percent of the mobile-phone market.
  • The tyranny of apps: Consumers increasingly expect to be able to use all their favorite websites and apps on their smart phones in the vehicle even if it isn’t safe for them to do so while driving.
  • The issue of redundancy: One of the big advantages of a tethered system is it doesn’t require users of onboard infotainment services to subscribe to another wireless service, such as OnStar or Safety Connect.
  • The robustness of onboard systems: For what safety services promote and offer, they really can’t depend on brought-in mobile devices.
  • The role of safety: The issue of how infotainment affects driver and passenger safety is on everyone’s lips.

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