This month we are highlighting research extracts from our QUBE Connected vehicle technologies intelligence service. In this service we review the way in which the vehicle manufacturers are approaching vehicle connectivity, how the supply chain is changing and provide examples of the technologies being used today and being considered for the future. This overview includes a look at the latest developments in touch pad technology. 

We define in-car connectivity in this service as the provision of driver services within the vehicle by means of either an embedded system in the vehicle or brought-in mobile device such as the smartphone. 

Demand for in-car connectivity is growing at an unprecedented rate

If the proliferation of devices, software and the latest mobility services on show at the recent 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is anything to go by the global market for vehicle connectivity is set to grow at an unprecedented rate. The convergence of on-board devices with mobility services is providing the vehicle manufacturers with the opportunity to personalise the in-car experience and strengthen their competitive position in a manner hitherto unknown. This is probably the one area that allows the car companies the greatest opportunity to differentiate their product offering and enhance and manage their customer relationships.

Supply chain relationships are changing

At the same time it is an area of rapid technological change which is resulting in a shift in the traditional supply chain relationships within the industry. The importance of on-board software is fundamentally driving this change with software developers and telematics service provides seeking to become Tier1’s. At the same time the vehicle manufacturers and their traditional Tier1’s are seeking partnerships and alliances that are changing the way systems are designed, developed and brought to market.

Ford pioneers a new approach

Ford has been at the forefront of this sea-change in the market with its decision to bring in-house the management of its second generation SYNC and MyFord platforms. In doing this Ford forged a relationship with an electronics manufacturing service company called Flextronics who make the system. The first generation SYNC was developed in conjunction with Continental and Microsoft with Continental fulfilling the role of the traditional Tier1 hardware and systems supplier. While Ford can be seen as the pioneer in this respect other vehicle manufacturers are keenly watching this development and are likely to follow suit to a greater or lesser extent in the foreseeable future.

These changes in the supply chain are seeing new relationships being forged as the Tier1’s and Telematics service providers struggle to operate in this environment. We now see handset/smartphone suppliers and wireless carriers forging direct relationships with the vehicle manufacturers and their software developers while the telematics service suppliers are also looking to partner with wireless carriers and cloud service providers. Despite these significant changes it is unlikely that the car companies will abandon their traditional Tier1 relationships but the nature of their business relationships will undergo significant transformation.

The debate continues on the choice of embedded versus brought-in connectivity
In recent years there has been some considerable debate over the way in which connectivity will be enabled within the car and to a certain extent the debate continues as to the choice between embedded /built-in connectivity and brought-in/mobile systems. The built-in option includes a SIM and built-in modem whereas the brought-in option can include either the SIM being brought-in and the modem being built in or both being brought-in to the vehicle. In the case of the latter, the most popular device being the mobile telephone with wireless connectivity. The advent of the smartphone has moved the goal posts again. The smartphone is rapidly displacing the traditional mobile telephone as a connectivity device as users demand access to the internet, social media and other applications available through brought-in devices but displayed and operated with in-car controls.

Audi’s Chief Executive Officer, Rupert Stadler summed this up well when he described how he wants Audi models to provide the ultimate mobile device for customers “ Ideally inside their vehicle they will have a range of online services tailored to their lifestyle, integrated driver assistance systems and seamless connectivity.”

As the number and variety of apps demanded by the consumer increase it stands to reason that it will be necessary for the vehicle to communicate with any server on the internet. Looking even further ahead, this is where cloud computer services are likely to become more attractive particularly as driver requirements call for dynamic selection of the server in real time based on the ever increasing number of apps available in the car.

Driver distraction is a serious concern

With the rapid increase in the range of services and apps being offered to/demanded by drivers the issue of driver distraction is causing serious safety concerns.

One potential problem area for the vehicle manufacturers was highlighted by the recent pronouncement from the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) with regard to the use of mobile phones in the car. The NTSB recommends safety improvements for US agencies to act upon, although it is not in a position to enforce its recommendations. However, in an effort to stop drivers using their phones or texting while driving, it is recommending that the use of mobile phones – even with headsets or portable speakers be banned. This is designed to prevent distracted-driver accidents, which have been on the rise in the US in recent years. It would not impact on embedded systems such as GM’s On Star service and GPS systems but is directed at mobile phones and similar devices. The safety implications of using mobile phones while driving have been investigated over the past ten years or more in the US but this is the first time that an outright ban has been recommended and will surely influence the way in which the vehicle manufacturers look to enable connectivity in the future.

While the NTSB calls for technology solutions to distracted driving, the Federal Communications Commission in the US is also promoting innovative solutions from wireless carriers, handset designers, software developers and the car companies. What is sure is that it is in everyone’s interest to see that technology becomes an integral part of the solution and not merely part of the problem.

According to recent press reports the market for vehicle connectivity is possibly going to get an unexpected boost in view of a federal mandate to require backup cameras in all vehicles. If vehicle manufacturers install display screens in entry level vehicles for backup cameras it will increase the uptake of navigation and hands free communication. The outcome of this mandate has yet to be seen but with safety concerns increasing it is likely that technology of this type will be required.

Touch pad technology

The touch pad allows motorists to write numbers or letters with their fingers in a similar manner to the finger pad on a laptop computer. By using a touch pad motorists can issue instructions to the navigation system, smartphone, radio and other communications and infotainment functions. Such technology has slowly been finding it sway into the car interior with Audi introducing the first touch pad in 2010 into the A7 and A8. The unit was designed by Harman Becker who developed the system for Audi's MMI Touch infotainment for the 2011 model year. A further example of this approach from Audi came with the launch of the redeigned A3 where the touch pad is positioned on the flat top of the infotainment control knob on the centre console. Harman Becker's touch pad is now embedded on the top of the infotainment control dial and uses capacitive sensors to detect the users touch and interpret finger swipes. Capacitive sensors were first used by Apple which adapted them for the iPhone.

The significance of this technolgy was underpinned when Harman Becker announced it had won a contract with VW worth US$1.3bn to produce infotainment systems for the Golf, Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia. This fast growing segment of the vehicle interior is attracting much attention from suppliers such as TRW who are all keen to capture a share of the business. In an attempt to assume a leadership position in the area, TRW is taking the touch pad technology a stage further and has developed a touch pad that can be moulded into a curved surface. This gives the designer of the vehicle interior much greater flexibility. According to Frank Koch, Advanced Engineering Manager for TRW's body control systems they can even be placed into transparent surfaces, not just black surfaces.

Logically, the obvious location for a touch pad would be the cerntre armrest or steering wheel with the idea being to locate the pad closest to the place where a motorist's hand is most likely to rest. This means the driver does not have to stretch to reach the pad. Furthermore additional pads could be installed for passengers including those in the rear seats. Koch argues that touch pad technology will take over from alphanumeric controls and that it has been proven to significantly reduce "driving deviations" such as lane drift when compared with traditional control systems. Touch pads may also be an alternative to voice recognition technology which can be affected by interior vehicle noise. TRW estimates that industry wide only 30% of motorists use voice recognitionin those vehicles that offer it. From a design standpoint adopting touch pads could reduce the number of switches on the instrument panel and reduce clutter.

Coming next: An interview with Sanjay Ravi of Microsoft, to better understand Microsoft's involvement in this rapidly changing automotive segment and where he sees the market going in the future.

See also: QUBE connected vehicle technologies intelligence service (annual subscription)

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