Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Automotive industry insiders long have been debating whether future vehicles will be better off with integrated telematics and electronics systems or engineered simply to accommodate handheld cell phones, iPods and other consumer devices occupants bring with them on the road.

The answer now is apparent, executives say. It is both – and then some.

In a panel discussion entitled “Trends in Telematics and Navigation Systems” at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here, executives from suppliers and auto makers say future cars and trucks will need to keep pace with rapid-fire developments in consumer electronics and software applications.

And that means vehicles will need to accommodate a combination of embedded and non-embedded systems, plus have the ability to connect to the Internet for frequent updates and new applications.

Ford Motor Co. calls the strategy, “Beamed In, Brought In and Built In,” says Jim Buczkowski, director-electrical/electronic systems engineering.

He points to the fast pace of design in the electronics industry, highlighted by the number of iPods and Nokia cell phones brought to market over a span of just a few years and the almost daily release of new software applications for such devices as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

“Customers will be expecting us to continually match or be close to what they see with (new features in) consumer electronics,” Buczkowski says, adding this is where “beamed in” plays a role. “We’ll never have the speed we need. We will need the Internet for that.”

Ford’s first effort at this will kick off May 27 when ‘10 model Fusion, Milan, MKZ and Mustang owners will be able to download initial updates to the auto maker’s Sync telematics system. The updates, which will add traffic information to navigation capability, come at no cost and can be downloaded from a website and transferred to the vehicle via a USB connection.

Future cars also must have the ability to integrate devices brought onboard by passengers. That trend already is well under way, with many vehicles now having Bluetooth compatibility and USB ports for connecting with handheld hardware. But better integration is coming.

“Our job now is to make the car more attractive, to come up with better looking interiors, better functioning environments” says Marios Zenios, vice president-connectivity and infotainment for Chrysler LLC.

The auto maker’s 200C electric-vehicle concept, unveiled in January, hints at Chrysler’s design direction, with an iPhone-like touch screen interface for operating the sound, navigation and other onboard systems.

Embedded onboard devices, such as General Motors Corp.’s OnStar, also will proliferate, allowing vehicles to transmit diagnostic information to owners and dealerships and provide other safety and security features, the panel says.

“The OnStar route is still popular and gaining momentum,” says Phil Magney, vice president-Automotive Research Practice for iSuppli Corp.

Voice-recognition systems will be a must, as well, as electronics features proliferate and have the potential for distracting drivers.

“We now are in the process of establishing standards on how long the driver’s eyes leave the road in operating HMIs (human-machine interface systems) and various features,” Buczkowski says. “That’s why voice recognition is so important.”

A continuing challenge for engineers will be to anticipate trends in consumer electronics and make sure there’s enough computing power onboard to accommodate new devices and applications throughout the life of the vehicle.

“The tricky part is getting the right hardware that will anticipate future software needs,” points out Brian Droessler, director-Connectivity Group North America for Continental Automotive Systems.

Both suppliers and auto makers say the future will find them in the applications business, operating online “App” stores similar to the one Apple runs for its iPhone.

“Yes, we do intend to host an App store with (software) partners and with OEs,” Droessler says.

The panel envisions a future where owners can get diagnostic information on their vehicles, unlock a car’s doors or close a convertible’s top through their cell phones.

All vehicles will have Internet access, allowing audio books for the driver and videos for the backseat passengers to be downloaded and Internet-based social networks such as Facebook or Twitter to be accessed easily, they say.

And, perhaps most importantly, operation of all this will be more intuitive than some systems today.

“If users can’t figure it out, they’re not going to use it,” says Paul Kirsch, vice president-Hughes Telematics.