The automobile of today is digitally enhanced, navigation system ready and virtually self-driving. These advances lead the majority of drivers to expect the same engagement from their cars as they do from their smartphones. That’s why automakers from Fiat-Chrysler (UConnect) to Hyundai (BlueLink) are focused on and offer in-car infotainment systems that keep drivers and passengers engaged and connected on the road. Being entertained and communicating with whomever and whatever you want with a swipe of a finger or simply speaking a phrase is considered the standard by which all in-car infotainment (also called in-vehicle infotainment) is based, but the experience has been around a long, innovative time.
What is in-car infotainment?
In its simplest terms, a vehicle infotainment system is the hardware and technology that allow drivers and passengers to experience audio/visual in-car entertainment while inside a vehicle. Today we view it as hands-free calling, touch screens giving us access to different music interfaces, backseat displays with built in DVD players or wireless streaming capability, and voice recognition/commands. And yes, all of that is in-car infotainment for the 21st century, but the first true vehicle infotainment was offered over 80 years ago and has been steadily evolving ever since.
William Lear teams up with Paul and Joseph Galvin to develop the first dashboard mono-radio for a car, calling it the “Motorola” for “motorized Victrola.” It was the 5T71 installed in a Studebaker–sold separately, of course. The cost? $130, which would be approximately $1788 today. Just to give a bit of context, the average car was selling for $540 at that time, or approximately $7426 in today’s dollars. That’s almost ¼ of the total cost of buying the car.
The British Crossley Motors–not to be confused with the Crosley Turntable or Crosley automobile–becomes the first car to be equipped with a factory standard radio.
1956 and 1960
Chrysler contributes to in-car entertainment with offers of record players–actual turntables—in the automobile first in the 1956 model year. The limitations of not only playability, but the kind of music available (only Columbia Recording artists) saw the idea scrapped at the end of that year. Chrysler tried again, however, in 1960 this time with a different system. Again, the player kept skipping, as with the first model, and lasted until 1962.
Ford partners with Motorola to install eight-track tape players in their cars.
Aftermarket car stereos take off, welcoming in the era of the Alpine, Blaupunkt, Kenwood and Pioneer brands.
Cassette players trump the eight-track with their smaller, writeable format–say hello to the mixtape.
The CD rears its head, signaling the beginning of the end for cassette players in general and showing a decrease in those for cars.
Mercedes-Benz comes off the line with the first factory installed in-dash CD player (Becker’s Mexico).
Touchscreens make their way into the Buick Riviera, allowing drivers to change their radio stations by tapping their fingers rather than turning a knob or pushing buttons.
Early 1990s to the mid-2000s
More and more technology starts to be included in cars. Navigation systems become more the norm and satellite radio is introduced to expand listening options.
In-car technology, Ford Sync, is introduced, enabling hands-free calling and voice-controlled music choice.
The Lexus SC430 becomes the last OEM to offer a cassette tape deck in the car.
A Ferrari FF is the first car to fully integrate the Apple CarPlay app.
Brought to life thanks to human machine interface
In-car infotainment owes its existence to telematics and human machine interface (HMI). HMI systems combine software and hardware to bridge the human with automated programs. HMIs do this through specialized software or panels. It’s the connection that allows you and I to talk to and control those displays that make things happen in our cars.
The push for more in-vehicle infotainment devices is driving growth in the HMI sector, per the SandlerResearch.org Global Automotive Human Machine Interface (HMI) Market 2015-2019 report. Much of that expansion comes from the public’s ever growing desire for more connectivity on the road and an avid interest in accessing what infotainment has to offer.
OEM and aftermarket vehicle infotainment systems
The connected car is bringing forth an immersive experience like never before. We’ve come a long way from the mono-radio being the singular form of in-car infotainment. And just as back in the days when we wanted to either upgrade our older car with the newest, coolest removable CD player or splurge on a newer model with a top-of-the-line factory installed stereo system, we can experience this via two different types of devices–OEM and aftermarket.
You may recall in our article outlining telematics in which we discussed the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). In the car world, this means the automaker has installed whatever feature into the vehicle there at the factory. Here are two examples of OEM infotainment systems available now:
Per Consumer Reports, this is the standout of the factory installed in-car infotainment systems. The touchscreen is user-friendly and successfully incorporates Bluetooth and voice recognition/commands capability along with traditional knobs and buttons.
The Blue Link also brings together an easy to read and use touch screen and knob control. It is standard in all Hyundais that are model year 2015 and newer.
Items that are aftermarket are those things that are installed and/or purchased for your vehicle post-sale–basically, non-OEM. There are a few ways you can connect these devices to your car–via Bluetooth, USB or replace your head unit with a brand new, high-tech infotainment device. Again, we’re sharing two of the top examples of aftermarket infotainment systems:
This Pioneer unit is considered by many to trump the quality of today’s factory in-car infotainment system. Features include both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a way to switch between the two, a 7-inch touchscreen, CD and DVD playability, and everything an OEM infotainment system offers.
This simple, straightforward unit allows you to link your smartphone to your in-car infotainment via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It plays off of whatever smartphone apps you have as well as connects you to your vehicle’s parking cameras and steering wheel buttons.
Apple CarPlay & Android Auto
These two platforms give you a dynamic in-car infotainment experience by allowing smartphone functionality across various car screens. Approximately 100 vehicle models support either one or both of these programs. However, older model cars cannot interface with them without an aftermarket infotainment unit.
But what exactly do these platforms offer? Apple CarPlay and Android Auto gain you access the same things for which you use your mobile device through your vehicle’s built-in display. Instead of taking your eyes off the road to plug in a phone number, go to a navigation app or bring up your music, you can use voice recognition/commands or interact with a display that is more eye level. This creates a safer ride.
Haptics and the effect on the human-to-car interaction
While we don’t spend as much time in our cars as we think we do–our automobiles are dormant 95% of the time–drivers have come to expect to be as engaged as they are in their homes. This has led to a much more expansive human-to-machine experience in our vehicles.
Got a road trip with the kids? A rear seat entertainment screen makes for a more relaxed ride. Want the ability to make and take mobile calls or browse your music safely? Voice recognition and infotainment systems that react to voice commands allow you to keep your hands on the wheels and eyes on the road while connecting with others or getting your jam on. New displays are becoming even safer with the addition of haptic feedback or haptics.
To explain haptic feedback, imagine a typical touchscreen experience. You press your finger on the display, feel only smooth glass, see the button or key you touched light up or slide or simply hope it’s doing something. This means you have to get visual information, keeping your eyes on it, not the road, creating a safety hazard. But with haptics, you feel your display respond through a sense of pressure, vibrations or motion. By adding this technology to your infotainment system means your glance time–the measure by which you look away from the road–decreases.
Haptics go beyond infotainment systems to just about anything you, as a user and driver, can control in your car. For all of these in-car technology innovations, however, the effect of infotainment on the driving experience–good and bad–are leading to a great many conversations.
Changing the state of the driving experience
One of the clearest benefits of in-car infotainment is how it enhances the driving experience. Whether it’s the ability to be fully hands-off with voice recognition/commands or providing more salient vehicle information than was available before, smarter cars create better prepared drivers. Another is the way it keeps eyes on the road for a safer, more connected commute. The heads-up display (HUD) is available on more vehicles as standard, and not just in premium styles like BMW and Lexus. Most models have information projected on the windshield while some, like the 2016 Mini Cooper, offer a retractable screen that rises from the dash when the driver needs it. All of the options are crafted to allow for eye level interface that lowers glance time.
There are some concerns over these immersive systems, however. Cyber-security and the possibility of having your car hacked while connected to your smartphone are a big issue. The software that allows the communication between your in-car infotainment system and mobile device leaves your vehicle open to remote attacks. Researchers at both George Mason and New York University discovered this anomaly and outlined potential security risks in some models.
Distracted driving is another worry that has arisen from the in-car infotainment explosion and connected cars, in general. While some believe the smarter automobiles actually cut down on driver error, others feel these innovations are akin to having a television set or entire computer at your fingertips as you motor down the highway. Per the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “Fiddling with an in-car infotainment system can leave a driver distracted for as long as 27 seconds.” At 25 mph, that is the same as traveling the length of three football fields blindfolded. This is, of course, the worst case scenario, but it is something safety experts and carmakers are working together on as these units are designed.
The look of tomorrow
The connected car is here, growing stronger, and in-car infotainment systems are part of that. Whether OEM or aftermarket, these innovations are creating a more immersive driving experience and making the human-to-machine interaction safer and more dynamic. Standard models are beginning to offer this technology as part of their package and only time will tell if it helps drivers stay more focused on the road or not.