Remember a time, not so long ago, when entertainment in the car meant listening to the radio or looking out the window — when you weren't annoying your siblings? If you were lucky, you might have even gotten to choose the radio station, though you were always limited to whichever signal was strongest.
Nowadays, your car is probably equipped with a full infotainment system and saves your family from keeping themselves occupied with the license plate game. From satellite radio and streaming music to in-dash navigation, seatback video screens and built-in Wi-Fi, your car likely has the potential to be a rolling entertainment center.
Yet for all of the advances over the years, most view manufacturer infotainment systems as lackluster at best. In fact, the majority of users tend to use their smartphones for information and entertainment in their vehicles — even when they have a built-in option.
That could change, though, with new technological innovations that are powering in-vehicle infotainment systems.
It's a common complaint: you buy a fancy new car with all the bells and whistles and, at first, it's convenient. It's usually not long before you realize, however, that your smartphone is easier to use, has more features or is more reliable.
For instance, your Bluetooth connection doesn't always work the way it should or you can't access your favorite streaming music app on the touchscreen. The older your car, the less likely that your infotainment system will even come close to matching your smartphone's capabilities.
There are several compelling reasons that car systems tend to lag behind smartphones:
Carmakers today are already working on models for the year 2021 and beyond. While they can plan some innovations between now and then, they are working, for the most part, within the constraints of current technology.
In contrast, smartphone developers work much faster and can roll out new features more quickly. Not to mention, most people buy new phones before they buy new cars and expect upgrades and new features on every new device.
The microchips in a typical vehicle must be able to withstand extreme conditions. According to one Audi engineer, a microchip in one of their vehicles must be able to function at temperatures ranging from -20 degrees to 140 degrees, while also withstanding vibrations and shocks that come from driving.
Since most carmakers want chips to be interoperable across the product line — and reliable for at least 10 years — the development process for a car chip is more demanding than that of a smartphone, which has significantly less stringent requirements.
Most infotainment systems are a hodgepodge of different types of software that don't always work seamlessly, which often make smartphones seem more advanced and useful than vehicle infotainment systems.
However, there are changes that are putting vehicle systems on track to be easier-to-use and more efficient.
Some carmakers have abandoned the idea of a robust in-car infotainment system altogether and instead have focused on making it easier for drivers to use their smartphones as the operating system.
Terminal Mode, for example, allows drivers to connect a phone to the vehicle using Bluetooth, USB or auxiliary cable and turns the touchscreen into a clone of the phone screen, giving the user access to music, navigation and other content.
Apps like Apple Car Play and Android Auto are indicative of this shift, which most experts expect to become the norm within a few years. Still, not all manufacturers offer these apps — and they aren't available in older models — so drivers are still forced to choose other options.
Advanced chips, like the ones used in Audi vehicles, are also showing some potential to improve the experience. In many ways, this technology is closer to what is found in smartphones, with a more mature network.
Some developers are also working on a new open standard for vehicle systems, one that would allow faster market time and more up-to-date features.
Until then, smartphones offer a viable alternative — unless, of course, you really would rather play the license plate game.