WoW ! It's the Web on Wheels

James H's picture

I wrote recently about my delight at finding a new monthly car magazine that focuses on efficiency and sustainability while still pressing hot buttons of style and performance. The second edition of iCar has several articles on 'in-car Internet' and the different ways it is currently possible to access the Web on wheels.

You could say that the Web passed its driving test a few years ago with the arrival of high bandwidth mobile access. However, now that smartphone ownership is starting to pass the 50% mark in some countries, access and use of the Mobile Web is growing exponentially and 'in-vehicle' capabilities are improving steadily in competency and sophistication. The major challenge remains the speed with which smartphone technology is changing and the comparative slow development lifecycles of automotive technologies, restricted as they are by a myriad of safety legislation and complex supply chains.   

Unfortunately, this lag in car manufacturers incorporating smartphone and Mobile Web capabilities into new vehicles means that more and more of us are risking serious accidents through distracted driving while trying  to access services on the move.

As identified by iCar, there are three main ways you can access the Web in a vehicle ...

1.  Portable Devices

One of the best current examples of this is the 3 MIFI Pebble which according to iCar is the most progressive and least price punitive network when it comes to 3G data.

When it comes to simply using your smartphone in the car, I currently like the look of Parrot's Minikit Smart. Priced at a reasonable £70 for a standalone plug and play kit, it provides a well designed and secure cradle that enables easy horizontal or vertical positioning and has voice activated hands-free call support that uses a built-in speaker.

The cradle design leaves the audio jack position on most smartphones free to access and I'm assuming that if you want to stream music to your car speakers you can plug in an FM Transmitter unit that are widely available for less than £10 these days and often provide a 'good enough' standard of sound although would not satisfy music purists.

So, for around £80 to £100 you could have all key requirements of hands-free phone, navigation, web access and music streaming in a relatively safe-to-use and non-distracting solution.

2.  Semi-Integrated Devices

This latest advert from Toyota makes a very quirky illustration of a car filled with gadgets and wires and the new Yaris which allows Bluetooth wireless connectivity to the car's infotainment system to allow access to your smartphone based music, phone, web and navigation services without having to fiddle around with the device itself.

An alternative aftermarket solution would be something like the iO Play solution that sits behind your car's audio/infotainment head unit and provides high quality Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calls and music streaming.

3. Fully Integrated Systems

The car manufacturers are waking up to connected onboard infotainment being an increasing differentiator and sales feature hook, as illustrated by the Toyota Yaris mainstream media campaign above. I'm personally surprised that it has taken the Japanese and Korean car manufacturers so long to push this forward as their home markets are the early adopters of mobile internet services but perhaps they've been waiting for it to become a truly mass market opportunity. In terms of quality and sophistication, in-car systems innovation and development is dominated by the German engineering supremos BMW, Audi and Mercedes. Given the high level of aspiration for these vehicle marques I think it is safe to say that they are setting the benchmark for what will be expected as standard in all new vehicles in the next few years. More detail on the current top capabilities for in-car systems is listed below...

In its 'Future Autos' news section, iCar looks at being 'Connected to the Cloud' and different ways in which the internet is moving from your 'desktop to your dashboard' . My eye was drawn particularly to the following ...

  • Ford and Google Prediction API   -   This gathers real-time driver data such as preferred commute routes and driving styles. Then the vehicle self-adjusts on the fly. For example, it might start conserving the battery on one part of your route because the car knows you will later be driving on the motorway. Another example of how Google's algorithm supremacy will likely trump the humble Sat Nav, beyond the erosion already happening through smartphone usage.
  • Toyota and Microsoft Azure   -   This is being experimented with to report EV battery levels, how long a charge will take and any nearby charge locations. The eventual goal is a cloud infrastructure that can report diagnostic info to a repair shop. I'm sure this is being experimented with outside of the M$ Azure platform - SharePoint Services for cars is such a horrible thought ;)
  • Street Bump in Boston   -   This service gathers data from smartphones' accelerometers to record the severity and frequency of potholes. The data is then sent to the cloud which reports pothole locations to city officials. This is a very tangible example of the 'smart grid' in action whereby the information being gathered and communicated via an onboard internet/web capability is not just for the purposes of the vehicle and its inhabitants but providing a wider service that can benefit others.

In its 'Top Fives' section, iCar gives a useful concise summary of the best in-car systems currently on offer ...

1. BMW iDrive

After getting a lot of early stick from commentators, the iDrive system is now described as the most polished and comprehensive infotainment platform currently available. It is voted best for online connectivity and navigation and is soon to have touch interfaces added.

2. Fiat Blue&Me

Described as a simple and effective way to sync effortlessly with smartphones, it is rated best for music streaming via Bluetooth or USB. I suspect that given the current popularity of the Fiat 500 with female drivers, Blue&Me sits in the same strategy as the Toyota Yaris campaign as actively targeting the inherent male geekiness and gadget focus when it comes to this type of technology decision.

3. Mini Connected

Cutting edge when it comes to onboard social networking support which may also indicate a more female target audience. From a geek perspective it currently only offers iPhone support, although I believe an Android version is in the pipeline, but I imagine the majority of Mini owners are also more likely to favour the iPhone.

4. Audi MMI

This looks like a solid bit of German engineering. I like the cars and I like the sound of MMI which is feature rich and provides an in-built WiFi hotspot for in-car internet sharing, a feature that with three smartphone mad females in the household I can see as increasingly useful for family outings.

5. Mercedes COMAND

Voted best for screen quality, head-up display and voice control, the COMAND platform recently added web browsing and iDrive style 'send-to-car' navigation support.

Despite being hammered heavily by recession and energy crisis, the automotive industry is entering a fascinating period of change and innovation that I believe will benefit both our lifestyles and our planet.