In 2019, 82% of vehicles sold featured a touch screen, compared to 53% five years ago. In the digital age, the in-vehicle infotainment system has become a way of setting vehicles apart from the crowd. ALTEN’s automotive engineers face opportunities and technical challenges that include multi-modal UI, building in more connected services, and the balance between UX, safety and cost.
The in-vehicle infotainment (or in-car entertainment) system is the only component of a vehicle that consumers regard as “digital”. That is why its quality has become a significant purchasing criterion for the new generation of drivers. However, according to the Consumer Reports study cited in the introduction, only 56% of car owners are satisfied with their embedded multimedia/navigation system. Car manufacturers know how much progress needs to be made, and are upping their R&D efforts to set themselves apart from their competitors.
Multi-modal interface and immersive experience
As driver assistance systems (ADAS) become increasingly affordable and the market for self-driving vehicles booms, people now do more than just drive in their cars. According to Intel’s “Passenger Economy” study, by 2050 autonomous driving will have freed up 250 million hours in the world’s most congested cities.
The automotive industry needs to rethink the interaction between driver, passengers and vehicle. The passenger compartment could be transformed into a cinema, living area, games room or even a co-working space.
To bring this new experience to consumers, automotive engineers will need to develop innovative versions of the in-vehicle infotainment system UI (User Interface), which has become the hub of a vehicle’s electronic system. The first step is the installation of one or more widescreen touch screens. Ever since the launch in 2012 of the Tesla S, equipped with a 17-inch centre screen, new car manufacturers have been competing fiercely in this field, striving to display multimedia content and offer an immersive visual experience.
In 2018, OEM DURA Automotive Systems unveiled its AVA™ unity concept system, designed especially for self-driving vehicles. It comprises multiple screens, including a 48-inch HD centre screen. Passengers can all interact simultaneously with the giant multi-touch screen, and view their own multimedia content. All four passengers can even play video games against each other during journeys.
DID YOU KNOW?
When developing a similar system, unveiled at CES 2018, an American automotive supplier approached ALTEN Cresttek (a subsidiary of the ALTEN Group).
Over a period of 1 year, ALTEN engineers designed the embedded software and UI for the multimedia platform, with a complex MVC architecture.
The major challenge for Ravi, the architect and project manager, was the final integration of the software into the widescreen OLED display screen. With its incredibly high resolution, offering multi-display on a single screen raised a whole series of issues, despite a successful initial computer-based simulation. These unforeseen obstacles notwithstanding, the multinational team of engineers (hailing from the USA, Mexico and India) very proudly finalised the product in time for CES 2018.
In addition to the touch screen, the engineers are developing other recognition systems to make interactions between users and their vehicles easier whatever the situation. Car manufacturers sometimes get one step ahead of the digital manufacturing giants. In 2015, BMW introduced its gesture control function on the 7 Series. This feature hit the smartphone market four years later (Google Pixel 4).
There are obviously counter examples. Inspired by OK Google and Alexa, Mercedes-Benz developed its own AI-powered voice assistant capable of understanding complex spoken instructions. It was built into the A Class for the first time in 2018.
In-Vehicle infotainment system: building in all smartphone services
In 2018, 80,3% of adults in the United States accessed the internet through their mobile phone. This figure is projected to grow to 84.8 percent in 2023 (source statista.com).
Furthermore, apps account for 90% of the time users spend on their smartphones (source mobiloud.com).
As mobile phone use has risen and risen, so too has the desire on the part of motorists to use their smartphones for the same purposes in their cars. In the meantime, modern car owners still need to take out their smartphone to do things like look for a restaurant while on the road, check reviews on Google or TripAdvisor, or make an online booking.
In 2019, Consumer Reports created a new “hands off phone” rating system to grade the extent to which in-vehicle infotainment systems free you from your mobile.
Even with the highest-scoring system, 32% of owners still use their phone instead of the on-board system for calling, texting and GPS.
Conscious of the shortcomings of their embedded systems, manufacturers have been working on the best way to create a symbiotic relationship between vehicle and smartphone.
Car manufacturers can choose between two routes to build in these new functions:
- Develop applications themselves based on their own infotainment system OS (operating system).
- Integrate Apple CarPlay™ or Android Auto™ so that they can run their existing applications.
Tesla, true to its status as a digital enterprise, opted for in-house development to remain in the vanguard of the sector. Volkswagen recently made this same strategic decision. The German manufacturer has decided to centralise its digital skills and to create a “car.software” business unit. Dedicated to the development of the vw.os proprietary operating system and associated applications, the Wolfsburg-based group is seeking to increase the proportion of software developed in-house from 10% to 60%.
However, most manufacturers favour the second option, preferring to use existing Google and Apple ecosystems. Manufacturers still incur substantial costs developing and maintaining numerous software applications. As a comparison of digital ecosystem size, the world’s number one car manufacturer sells approximately 10 million vehicles per year, whereas 1.5 billion smartphone units are sold annually, 214 million of them by Apple (source). Yet this dependence on suppliers and digital technology giants raises a number of concerns.
Customer demands vs Regulation vs Cost: squaring the circle
In September 2019, American media outlet The Verge published an article entitled: Apple CarPlay’s new dual-screen function won’t work in any car on the road today; Your $40,000 car is lagging behind your $700 phone. The eight vehicle manufacturers interviewed admitted that their in-vehicle infotainment systems did not currently support the iOS 13 “dual-screen” function. This incident revealed two things: the performance limits of embedded electronics, and the software overlays developed by car manufacturers.
Speed camera detection and warning applications are strictly prohibited in many European countries. Similarly, watching a film or TV while driving is a serious offence under the French Highway Code. In 2016, a Tesla S driver was killed in an accident. He was watching the Harry Potter movie while driving. In order to restrict these functions and comply with the law, manufacturers are therefore not permitted to install the native version of the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto operating systems in their in-car entertainment systems. They are developing software overlays that comply with regulations in the countries where they market their vehicles.
For automotive engineers, regulation is not the only constraining factor to be reconciled with consumer expectations; cost is another consideration. In the 2018 J.D. Power survey carried out in China, consumers prioritised a fast in-vehicle infotainment system, equipped with a high-resolution screen and in-built 4G connectivity. However, they did not want to pay a higher price. 41% of respondents wanted the price of services (including subscription to the 4G network) to be included in the vehicle purchase price. 51.3% of respondents “would tolerate” a subscription cost of €5 to €10 per year… Manufacturers will find it hard to make their business models profitable.
In 2018, the average price of a new car was €31 130 in Germany. For non-specialist manufacturers, it is therefore difficult to offer an electronics system that matches the power of the on-board systems of premium vehicles selling for over €90,000. As a result, the automotive electronics engineers of tomorrow will have to overcome serious technical challenges.
Today, manufacturers are opting for a modular hardware architecture, to reduce the purchase price of infotainment systems. We asked Julien S., ALTEN Technical Director, about manufacturers’ economy-of-scale strategies:
Our customer is developing a single electronic control unit for all segments. It has enough processing power to meet the multimedia/navigation requirements of a premium car equipped with a HD screen and multiple functions. It is therefore over-specified for an entry-level car.
To meet the service needs in each vehicle range, engineers have been tasked with developing configurable embedded software capable of handling multiple screen sizes and resolutions.
Many ALTEN service centres are working on the design of automotive infotainment systems in Europe, the USA and Asia.
To take one example among many, a French team is steering the development of multimedia/navigation systems and associated electrical accessories (e.g. aerial, speakers, etc.) for a multinational car manufacturer alliance. ALTEN’s embedded system engineers have a role in specifying components, monitoring electronics and software development, mechanical integration, and managing upgrades, suppliers and prototypes.
As the first innovation spanning the automotive and digital worlds, the infotainment system will soon be an essential item in our vehicles. Consumers have many expectations. Their greatest desire is for all their smartphone functions to be built into in-vehicle infotainment systems at low cost. Manufacturers are working on combining processing power and competitiveness while also ensuring their systems comply with regulations.
All these digital services generate large quantities of data. Car manufacturers are now looking to capitalise on this data to improve the performance of the connected vehicles of the future. A new challenge has been set.
To learn more about the ALTEN group’s automotive engineering projects, please visit: https://www.alten.com/sector/automotive-engineering/