Once the preserve of passengers lounging in high-end, premium vehicles, rear-seat entertainment (RSE) technology has undergone a tentative journey over the last 10 years and is only now about to explode, a software supplier said.

Screen size and resolution are obvious enhancements to the in-vehicle experience but, according to VNC Automotive, the gradual move towards advanced levels of autonomous functionality is set to herald the biggest shift yet in the way the technology is integrated and utilised. Some of the steps could even make physical screen technology redundant.

“Future adoption of Level 3, 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles could result in us spending more time in our cars, but less time physically driving them,” Peter Galek, VNC automotive product engineering director said. “Ultimate removal of driver accountability and road-focus has the potential to completely alter the role of RSE and the vehicle in general.

“The advent of digital TV, streaming and gaming has already altered the way we consume media at home and on the move, and this trend is gradually becoming more prevalent in our personal transport, too. The pandemic has played its part in accelerating the evolution of our media consumption habits – data from Ofcom suggests that UK streaming services alone have enjoyed 12m new sign-ups during COVID-19 and that viewing times on these services have risen by 71% on 2019’s figures – but we are nearing a revolutionary age for content consumption in-vehicle.”

Galek said RSE has already become less of a premium-only product and is a key factor influencing the decision of car buyers of the most popular models.

VNC Automotive claims over a decade’s experience in passenger vehicle systems now used in 35m vehicles worldwide. Its Cobalt Share product, which targets RSE and BYOD (bring your own device) users by sharing multimedia content from multiple mobile sources to vehicle screens, hints at the evolving requirements of car passengers in 2021.

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“We are living in a ‘one-click society’, be that for ordering items for next-day delivery, operating home devices or vehicle connectivity – we have been spoiled by convenience and it’s imperative that this is reflected in ease of use, even as technology evolves and functionality is added,” Galek said.

“Crucially, this needn’t only benefit entertainment use cases. The way we work has been evolving over the past decade and technology has expanded the boundaries of the traditional office environment – emails can be checked and meetings attended via portable devices while on the move. The pandemic has further accelerated this shift to remote working and reduced the reliance on physical communal office space.  An ability to swiftly connect to a vehicle’s screens, as widespread travel resumes, means that this work doesn’t have to be completed at home or an office, but remotely from the back of a taxi or form of executive travel.

“In the future, this could promote collaborative working as business is less affected by travel; connecting seamlessly between home or when on the move, checking emails or joining meetings streamed to common screen workstations viewed by multiple people in an executive MPV, for example, or even a Level 5 autonomous vehicle with the driver involved, too. The basic technology to provide this level of experience and connectivity exists, and we would expect demand to increase as customer awareness grows and the working environment continues to evolve as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Galek said format commonality is vital for a seamless multi-vehicle integration, as compatibility issues between device manufacturers or auto makers’ proprietary systems will provide a short- to mid-term challenge to overcome. Advancements to mobile networks such as 5G offer potential, however.

“We could see a scenario whereby enhanced synchronisation enables the vehicle to become a crucial part of a passenger’s network of inter-connected devices that make up their work or personal hub. Rather than simply streaming from your phone to a screen, you’re seamlessly immersed into the mobile environment.”

This opens up potential for revenue streams for vehicle manufacturers, operators and content providers: screens in private hire vehicles could become digital billboards streaming advertisements, targeted campaigns or public service announcements.

The future of entertainment

Through modern LCD or OLED technologies, vehicle screen resolution is advancing at a considerable rate. However, the added cost of screen supply and integration, hardware certification and crash safety validation provide challenging barriers to adoption. Automotive applications must also typically be able to withstand temperature extremes of -40C to 85C, plus offer touchscreen functionality including haptic feedback. This represents an opportunity rather than a challenge.

RSE is a chance for vehicle manufacturers to offer differentiation and step away from the shared-parts feel of some premium ergonomics and interactive systems. Possibilities such as zonal, smart audio controls to adjust personal volumes and focus content already enhance the in-vehicle experience, but the potential to bring such functionality under control of a device or app takes this to the next level of integration. Such connectivity also offers a future-proofing opportunity, enabling remote updates and upgrades via mobile internet or cloud-based technology to avoid building in inherently outdated technology – the latest interface or fully bespoke layout, welcome screen or personalised settings are all potential realities.

“A car’s sound system is already often the best system owned by a customer,” Galek said. “If vehicles are to evolve to become, with the integration of autonomous functionality, a mobility space as opposed to a traditional car, could we see the emergence of home-from-home entertainment systems?”

Families sitting on their drive to enjoy the ultimate cinematic or latest multi-player gaming experience, or doing so during journeys in an augmented reality – where a progress map appears over a semi-transparent window, or restaurant details are projected as you pass – serve to demonstrate the breadth of potential for RSE technologies.

“The future may look beyond screens in the rear, to projections on to any flatform surface, such as the windows, and incorporate augmented reality technology to truly make the vehicle an extension of living or work space.”