Special Report

The Telematics Tide

HALF MOON BAY, CA – With the fall launch of the Prius V, Toyota also rolls out its Entune infotainment system in the U.S., the first major effort by the brand to take on Ford’s Sync telematics system and similar rivals in the U.S.

Entune, which runs on the data network provided by the driver’s paired 3G-, Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, allows Internet services such as Pandora, OpenTable, Movie Tickets, Bing and iheartradio to be accessed through the car’s onboard entertainment system.

Each in-car app is automotive-grade and specific to Toyota.

Toyota says Entune solves a longtime problem for auto makers: how to keep up with the consumer electronics industry’s head-spinning pace of updates and revisions.

Because of the relatively long vehicle-development cycles – at least four years – manufacturers often find their latest whizz-bang features look like yesterday’s news at the moment new vehicles first hit the showroom.

“Traditionally, when you build a multimedia system like this, it takes you three to five years to spec it out, build it and get it into the retail chain,” Jason Schulz, manager-marketing and communications for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.’s advanced-technology department, tells Ward’s here during a media drive of the new Prius V.

A long development time “limits your ability to update (the technology) and address market change,” Schulz adds. “This system doesn’t have to worry about that, because we’re leveraging a smartphone and outboard connectivity to do that,” he says, noting updates will be performed wirelessly.

The five Entune apps each offer similar, if not identical, functionality found in their smartphone versions. (Saved Destinations, also accessible from the home screen, represents a sixth feature, but is not a phone app.)

Pandora is the most alike. The free Internet music service is one of the top downloaded mobile-phone apps. Users can spend hours carefully crafting their own personalized stations featuring selected artists and music genres.

“That’s a lot of work, but for good reason: You want to get the music you want to listen to, right?” Schulz says.

By syncing with a smartphone Pandora app, all of that stored personalized information is accessible by Entune, including familiar controls such as thumbs up/down (a yes or no vote for the type of song being played), pause and skip.

“What I like is it’s integrated into the steering wheel,” Schulz says. “So I can change volume. I can also skip a track.”

Schulz says the safety advantage offered by Entune’s Pandora, compared with using the smartphone version while driving, is a no-brainer.

At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, “a lot of journalists said, ‘I’ve already got it on my smartphone; I use the aux jack,’” he says. “But what’s easier to read,” a small phone screen or the much larger Prius V touch screen?

The other apps are less directly related to their smartphone brethren.

The Entune version of Bing in the Prius V offers points of-interest only and does not provide a full Web search, Schulz says.

“The problem we’re solving here is one of updatability,” he says.

The point-of-interest searches available on most in-car navigation systems today easily get outdated as businesses open and close or change names. The hookup with Bing means the car will always have the latest information.

Many of the Entune apps’ sub-menus aren’t available while the car is in motion (in general, anything requiring a keyword to be typed is blocked), but casual-speech voice recognition technology can be used with Bing.

Say “I need a flower shop” and Bing returns a list of nearby florists in seconds.

The vocal command is transmitted to a cloud-based, voice-recognition service in Seattle that is operated by VoiceBox, which converts it to text, adds context and forwards it to Bing to elicit search results.

While Bing is Microsoft-owned, Entune does not run on Microsoft software, but is a proprietary system created by Japan’s UIE, Schulz notes.

Other apps include:

  • iHeartRadio, a Clear Channel-owned database of 750-plus local radio stations from around the U.S.
  • MovieTickets.com, which searches current movie listings and allows tickets to be purchased, provided a credit card has been registered with the website.
  • OpenTable, a reservation service used by 15,000-plus restaurants in the U.S.

Restaurants, theaters and other points of interest can be mapped via the Prius V’s navigation system or called on a Bluetooth-connected smartphone.

Because Entune runs on the data network of a vehicle owner’s smartphone, a close eye should be kept on airtime usage for those with limited data plans, Schulz says, specifically monthly services that restrict downloads to 256MB.

Toyota estimates Entune’s versions of Bing, OpenTable and MovieTickets.com will eat up about 30MB per month.

“It’s 10 or 11 hours a month (that) people listen to mobile Internet radio,” Schulz says of services such as Pandora. “There’s going to be customers (concluding), ‘If I’m going to use this (app) a lot, I’m going to have to consider adjusting my plan.’”

Entune, on the Prius V’s Three and Five grades, is usable with compatible 3G smartphones (most Blackberries and iPhones, plus those running Android or some Windows operating systems).

Owners will need to go to Toyota.com to download the Entune app to their phone and then sync their phone to the Prius V’s head unit with Bluetooth.

Toyota did “a lot of research” via customer clinics to determine which six apps to launch Entune with, says Dave Lee of dealer-training-unit the University of Toyota. He says additional apps are on the way.

“Because we have a living system here, we can launch it with partial application functionality and add things as we go,” he says. “And then when all these things are available, we can adjust the apps, offer new apps or change these.”

Entune is free for now, but Lee says Toyota could begin charging a subscription fee after a 3-year period.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com