SEMA News—June 2014
By Steve Campbell
Connectivity Is the Word
Integrating Wireless Technology Holds Boundless Potential
“Over the last several years, the biggest trend in car electronics has been the integration of the smartphone and everything that comes with it, meaning the whole theme of connectivity,” said Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing for the car electronics division of Pioneer Electronics USA Inc. “Consumers bring these devices everywhere in their lives, so the opportunity for mobile-electronics manufacturers and retailers is to make the experience better, safer and more convenient for consumers.”
Car audio has gone through revolutionary changes, Cardenas said, ranging from high-power amplifiers and subwoofers to CDs and MP3s and on to satellite radio. Now electronics manufacturers have embraced streamed content and all-encompassing head units. For instance, Pioneer’s AVIC-8000NEX unit features a 7-in. capacitive screen, networked navigation, smartphone interface, expanded Bluetooth capabilities, Pandora Internet radio, SiriusXM satellite radio capability, HD radio technology, the most advanced current audio playback formats, dual camera inputs and more.
Even so, broadcast audio remains the dominant source users listen to while in their vehicles, said Melvin Lee, vice president of business development for Adori Labs Inc.
“Drivers average more than two hours per day in their cars, and they listen to broadcast radio about 68% of that time,” he said. “They listen to current and local news and weather, discover new music and enjoy the unpredictability of the programming. It’s also simply convenient, since there’s no setup time for streaming and changing stations is fast and simple.”
Adori Labs has made broadcast audio even more interactive and controllable with its licensed IP that provides DVR-like functions to any audio source, whether in a vehicle or in a home. Users can pause live radio, then play, rewind and fast-forward recorded content as desired. Adori features can be controlled on the radio, through an infrared remote control or using an Android smartphone app. The interfaces offer simple full-band radio tuning and capture to a non-removable/non-transferrable memory.
Many manufacturers have developed modules that similarly enhance factory systems that already exist in both new and used cars. For example, the Car Connection Pro from Voxx Electronics Corp. plugs into a vehicle’s OBDII port and provides GPS tracking of the vehicle from a smartphone or tablet. It also serves as a controller for keyless entry, remote-start systems and climate controls, and it can monitor vehicle functions such as hard braking, sharp turns, hard acceleration and other extreme driving. In addition, the unit provides quick access to the vehicle’s diagnostic information, including issues that may trigger the “check engine” light.
Kicker, another top mobile-electronics brand and a leading producer of amplifiers and speakers, recently introduced an amplified controller called PXi50.2 that can be used to drive two or four speakers at 25 watts per channel. Kevin Campbell, the company’s director of marketing, said that the controller connects to the user’s iPhone, iPod or tablet. It can be used in any vehicle from a motorcycle to a boat, and it allows builders of vintage vehicles to retain the original radio while also providing a means to stream in content from Apple products.
“Consumers may now have their own personal tablets integrated in their vehicles,” he said. “Our SmartLogic tablet/DVD system has built-in Wi-Fi, so if a user has a mobile hotspot, he is able to stream digital media from the cloud or download the media to the device and watch it anytime. We designed the system so that the user is able to watch Netflix or Hulu and stream movies or TV shows as well as watch DVDs on an Android tablet. Also, the tablet can be updated, and because of the state-of-the-art docking station that holds the SmartLogic tablet/DVD system in the headrest, the user is able to slide the tablet out of the dock and use it anywhere.”
Tom Malone, president of Voxx Electronics Corp., said that his company has also developed rear-seat video products that include streaming capabilities. He said that the traditional headrest or drop-down DVD business is changing as everyone from grammar-school students on up is bringing smartphones or tablets into cars.
“We’re developing Android-based rear-seat entertainment products that you can connect to your phone to bring content into your headrest system,” Malone said. “So now it’s not a DVD player by itself anymore, and it may not be a DVD player at all. It may be two Android-based screens that are essentially embedded tablets. The rear-seat entertainment market has declined because there hasn’t been a lot of innovation, but we believe that Android conversion will re-stimulate that market.”
Kicker has seen a similar flattening in the amplifier and subwoofer segment. While people will never stop loving music, Campbell said, their priorities have changed.
“Suppliers like us have to pay attention to those market shifts, and we need to change with them,” he said. “We still design and sell more subwoofers than anyone in the world, but a lot of our focus lately has been on creating accurate and satisfying bass with shallow-mount drivers that don’t take up the kind of space they used to.”
Connected-car technology continues to flourish in the mobile-electronics segment of the automotive aftermarket. Wi-Fi, smartphones and tablets now allow users to bring their apps and content into their vehicles and link wirelessly to onboard electronics, providing greater degrees of personalization.
“Consumers like the idea of having a system that is better than premium but doesn’t weigh down the car,” Campbell said. “We reverse engineered each vehicle out of the audio system and used molded enclosures that were designed to fit into spaces in the vehicle that normally are not used for storage. On ’05–current Mustang hardtops, for example, the powered subwoofer that we offer fits snugly in the right rear quarter panel, and we make a powered sub enclosure that fits comfortably under the back seat for fullsize crew-cab pickups. Each of these systems has been designed with digital signal processing and a laptop program that enables us to fine-tune it, talk to the amplifier and really satisfy the customer.”
Malone said that much of mobile electronics has become “solution selling,” which is a Voxx Electronics focus. Consumers want to be able to use their phones or tablets to perform set tasks, and it is up to retailers to have solutions for them.
“A lot of it is about integrating products that they already have into their existing system,” he said. “Say you bought a new car that has a touchscreen but doesn’t have navigation. You could take the head unit out completely and put a nav system in, or you can install a ‘black box’ that will bring nav up to your screen in your existing OE radio and still be able to use its touchscreen capabilities. It’s a less costly solution for the consumer, and it maintains the factory OE fit.”
“Some of this new technology will allow you to put that content onto your larger OE screen,” he said. “It’s just another method of integrating technology into the vehicle using a device you already have.”
Navigation itself has evolved significantly. Maps were first contained on CD-ROMs, then DVDs, then hard drives and flash memory. Now there are systems that are completely cloud-based and can be updated on the fly.
“Pioneer and other manufacturers are leveraging those options,” Cardenas said. “We’re storing map data for the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii and parts of Mexico and Canada on the device, but we’re enhancing it with information that comes from the cloud, such as points of interest. On a traditionally based navigation system, that data would be hard set until you bought a new update. Now we can add and update data such as traffic and weather information in real time.”
In the relatively near future, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connectivity will also become more prevalent in mobile electronics, both from the automakers and from specialty-equipment companies. Lee said that social networking, situational awareness and emergency-vehicle awareness are among the V2V innovations in development, and V2I solutions may include broadband connectivity for telematics, passenger entertainment, interactive marketing, interactive points of interest and more.
On the other hand, Lawrence said that Vizualogic will soon release software that will allow peer-to-peer connections between multiple tablets using Wi-Fi or USB/ethernet.
“This type of connectivity means that all devices in the vehicle will be able to communicate with each other,” he explained. “With this feature, anyone will be able to stream our SmartLogic tablet/DVD system from inside the vehicle. We are also currently working on a project that will allow gaming from car to car or even real-time face-to-face talking from car to car.”
Mobile electronics technicians and installers are also changing the way they do business. They must now become much more familiar with each car’s entire electronics system, since so many components are interconnected and can affect each other’s operation.
“They’re interfacing with the data bus systems in the vehicle, so from a manufacturer’s standpoint, products are harder to develop,” Malone said. “You need good skilled technicians to install them and have a working understanding of the vehicle architecture. There are many different solutions and modules, and that can create an inventory challenge. It’s a marketing challenge, because most consumers really don’t know about all these different modules and what they can do.”
Cardenas pointed out that the number-one question for retailers from consumers traditionally was what products fit their specific vehicles, but now customers have an iPhone 5S or a Galaxy S4 and expect retailers to be experts in the connectivity and compatibility options of their specific smartphones.
“Retailers have an opportunity to become experts in that field and develop a real advantage over their competitors by knowing and keeping abreast of what products and what manufacturers are supporting the latest smartphones and how they can help the consumer integrate that smartphone into their vehicle,” he said. “In addition to the physical challenges—what fits a given dashboard—the electrical interfaces that have emerged over the last 10 years become more complex every year. There are now a variety of proprietary bus systems, and the ECU expects the radio to talk back in some of the latest vehicles.”
“It’s not so much about having the right brands as making sure that their own store is the right brand,” he said. “The basis behind promoting their brand—the store—is their service and their support to consumers. The savvy aftermarket 12V specialists who are making a living in this industry have never lost sight of that. They promote their store, their service and their knowledge. That’s what separates them from the big-box movers that can’t promote much more than price and convenience. They can’t offer expertise.”
Another major hurdle will be getting end consumers to accept changes in technology, Lawrence said.
“With cloud media taking over, they will need to accept not having the standard media that has been used for years,” he said. “Eventually, all digital media will be in the cloud, so mobile-electronics retailers and installers need to be aware of all the advantages Android can offer. With Android, there is no need for large gaming systems to be installed in the vehicle. You have thousands of games that can be downloaded right on the device, and being able to connect over Wi-Fi is a huge plus.”
Smartphone integration also means potential markets that are far larger than can be expected from traditional components.
“When we talk about the introduction of a new smartphone product—an iPhone, a Samsung, an LG, an HDC—you’re talking about numbers like 5 million, 10 million, 15 million handsets being sold in a very short period,” said Cardenas. “We have traditionally looked at CD players, DVD players and navigation systems with a total market size of several million units a year in the United States, but the potential is massive when we start attaching to 50 million to 125 million consumers with smartphones, and helping consumers integrate those devices into their vehicles is a huge opportunity.”
The key, said each of the experts we spoke with, is to not only keep up with the trends but also to master wireless integration.
“Salespeople today need to be perceived as automotive technology specialists who provide a welcoming environment, who are trained and knowledgeable and who give the consumer confidence that they understand each vehicle and understand that there are good solutions for each of them,” Malone said. “It is critical that you engage customers with someone who provides a very positive experience that will bring them back for future solutions.”