SEMA News—June 2013
By Mike Imlay
Smartphones and Hotspots
The Mobile Connectivity Trend Continues
For 2013 and the immediate future, the buzz phrase in the mobile-electronics market remains “vehicle connectivity.” At least, that seems to be the consensus of a variety of category observers within the field, from journalists to marketing professionals.
“Just as we’ve seen in past years, in-vehicle technology has been driven by the iPhone and the efforts to either connect with it, integrate with it or make it part of the environment,” said Mobile Electronics Magazine Editor in Chief Solomon Daniels. “Manufacturers know that consumers carry their music around with them. The vehicle is no longer the central point for entertainment; it’s more of an offshoot.”
By that, Daniels means consumers now bring their tunes, videos and games into their cars, seeing (and expecting) their vehicles as another venue equipped to play them. There’s nothing really new about that trend in or of itself. What is new is how the iPhone—which for a long time pushed the trend forward—is beginning to give way to other mobile devices.
In fact, in our report last year on the mobile-electronics market, Brian Torres, vice president of Vizualogic, predicted that 2013 would see an increase in Android-based devices connecting with vehicles.
“The Android is wide-open territory,” he said. “People can play in that yard every day.” (SEMA News, June 2012, p. 58.)Now, it seems, that prediction is proving true. According to Daniels, it was one of the more exciting trends he saw at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the success of Samsung in solidifying the Galaxy as sort of a single point in which Android is well represented within a standardized line of smartphones,” he said. “It makes it easy for a lot of companies to start to build around the format. A lot of connectivity options for the iPhone involve cable connection, whereas Android can do similar things over Bluetooth.”
The trend for both cabled and Bluetooth technologies could also be seen at the 2012 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The Show’s best new mobile-electronics honors went to Intraphex for its TD-SID universal smartphone integration device, which allows both iPhone and Android phones to redisplay their HDMI outputs on virtually any car entertainment screen, whether it be an
in-dash or headrest monitor.
GoPoint Technology Director of Marketing Monica Gronert agreed that the market is warming up to Android and Bluetooth-capable smart devices—not just for entertainment, but for vehicle diagnostics as well. In fact, said Gronert, in a day and age when OEMs are making onboard computerization more proprietary and less consumer accessible, aftermarket manufacturers such as GoPoint are continuing to buck the system, connecting consumers back with their vehicles through their handheld devices. To that end, the company recently introduced its BT1 and BT1A lines of wireless diagnostic products, designed to work with both Apple and Android operating systems. The devices connect to a vehicle’s OBD-II port and relay vital data to a user’s phone.
“The device is most appreciated as the tool that’s already in your pocket,” said Gronert. “When your check-engine light comes on, you just pull out your smartphone, which has already synched with the BT1 device connected to your vehicle’s OBD-II port. It not only will read out the code, but will translate it into ‘easy speak’ that users can understand.”
The products can also pull up service bulletins and recall information.
“If you’re buying a used car that’s not too old, it’s a way to scan the vehicle and find out how many recalls or service bulletins it has,” Gronert said. “In addition, there are a lot of apps that are compatible with the BT1. Many come at no additional charge. For the real car enthusiast, these include DashCommand and various apps that can take you into a whole other level—lap timers, skid pads, fuel efficiencies and myriad other things for those who are into racing and performance.”
Meanwhile, Alpine Electronics is bringing similar technology to bear on in-car sound tuning in the audio-component field with the launch of its Alpine TuneIt application. The app is compatible with Alpine’s new CDE-147BT CD receiver with Bluetooth wireless, which also features full Pandora Internet radio control from iPhones and Android smartphones. Other functions include easy phone pairing, call waiting and display of phone battery, signal level and received message icons on the receiver’s faceplate.
“Sound tuning has always been available in aftermarket products but was usually just attainable by enthusiasts willing to invest the time to tweak their systems,” said Steve Crawford, vice president and general manager of Alpine Electronics of America’s aftermarket business unit. “Alpine TuneIt makes traditional sound tuning functions easily accessible via a smartphone app. We envision Alpine TuneIt and future apps like it to serve as value enhancements for head units.”
However, with vehicle connectivity coming to revolve around a smartphone or tablet even for OEMs, there may be unexpected consequences of that trend both for carmakers and the specialty-equipment industry, said Daniels.
“My thought is that the dependence on the smartphone as the in-vehicle connectivity device is actually hurting innovation for the vehicle,” he said. “It’s a very temporary connection, and no one is going to build on a temporary connection. What if your home Internet connection only worked when you had your cell phone in your house? It’s sort of the same thing in the car. People aren’t going to build devices for the car that take advantage of all the width and breadth of the Internet if there isn’t a constant connection.”
Daniels forecasts that more and more major companies will be coming out very soon with head units centered on a detachable Android tablet that a user can take from the vehicle into the home or other environments. He noted that the Android operating system, as open architecture, is increasingly attractive to OEMs and aftermarket manufacturers alike.
“I think in the next two years we’ll start to see the market round out with a lot more offerings, and hopefully, it will proliferate from the head unit back to other pieces of the vehicle,” he said.
In fact, as recently as this past April, the popular car audio, video and navigation blog CEoutlook edited by Amy Gilroy was noting a new trend in aftermarket car audio installations, in which a dash-mounted smart device actually becomes the remote control for a car radio.
“Since last year, more car radios are offering a unique relationship with a smartphone or tablet—and it’s not about the car radio controlling the handheld. It’s the opposite,” reported Gilroy. “And this is leading to some interesting installations that pair a car radio with an iPad, iPad mini or Android tablet. Sony, Scosche and Boss Audio are some of the radio makers who offer the feature.”
Factory vs. Aftermarket
Perhaps the biggest question still shaking out is who will continue to drive these trends—the OEMs or the aftermarket.
“Many automotive companies like to tout that they are technology companies,” said Brennan Hamilton, GoPoint Technology president and CEO. “This is only true in the narrow space of transportation. Innovation in the cockpit has been stunted for years by a lack of creativity and very long development cycles. What we are seeing currently is mobile being used as the crutch that brings innovation to the cockpit. This trend will continue to accelerate until truly open infotainment systems are created.”
Ultimately, Hamilton believes that mobile infotainment for both OEMs and the aftermarket will come to revolve around factory head units.
“This trend is best viewed through the lens of what Ford has been doing with Sync,” he said. “Laws and society will continue the push to decelerate the issue of distracted driving, making an integrated head unit more attractive.”
“There has been a paradigm shift from how to make your vehicle work around particular products to how these products will complement the factory option in your vehicle,” observed Chris Fierek, director of marketing for Directed Electronics. Based in Vista, California, the company claims to be the largest designer and marketer of consumer car alarms and remote starters in North America, and its Viper car security and remote SmartStart products allow users to perform alarm, security and remote vehicle start activities from their smartphones.
“It truly is a slippery slope, where the OEMs try to make things more difficult by running more and more controls through the databus,” said Fierek of the factory-versus-aftermarket equation. “That being said, we’ve spent endless hours cracking the databus so we can control countless features via the databus while tapping into only two wires. In some cases, we have a T-harness that plugs directly into the OBD-II port so you can add remote start or extend range without touching one wire in the vehicle. Just plug the components in and program them to the vehicle.”
In either case, you can expect a future in which the OEMs transform their vehicles into mobile hubs for a variety of
“Eventually, we’re going to get to the point where [aftermarket] manufacturers start to build products with the assumption that the vehicle will have a Wi-Fi connection,” predicted Daniels, who envisions a world of vehicular mobile hotspots in which drivers and passengers can all enjoy a broad range of connected activities all at once.
Hotspot connections will also allow things, such as amplifier (or other product) specs, to be downloaded directly to a vehicle as needed. For example, a driver will be able to enter the year, make and model of his or her car into an Internet app that automatically downloads adjustments for equalization, frequency and delay specifically for that car or truck. In addition, cars will be able to get regular updates for vehicle and accessory software from the cloud.
Even without a central hub or vehicle hotspot, some aftermarket manufacturers are already introducing a variety of interesting Wi-Fi-based innovations. Take Bestop, for example. The company recently announced the availability of its new, first-to-market Wi-Fi PowerBoard NX extending running board for trucks. Utilizing patent-pending Wi-Fi component technology, the product is designed for easy installation without the need to cut into door panels, kick panels, kick plates or carpets. Nor is there any cutting, splicing or tapping into OEM wiring harnesses.
With the PowerBoard NX, door sensors are affixed to each door pillar, and a receiving unit is attached to the truck frame. Instead of relying on the factory door-open wiring, the sensors use a magnetic trip. When a door opens, the sensors and receiver trigger the running board to extend into position.
According to George Stickles, Bestop’s head of aftermarket engineering, not connecting to the factory wiring pays dividends beyond quicker, easier installation.
“Modern truck wiring is not only massively complicated, it’s also constantly changing,” he said. “The PowerBoard NX just ignores all the truck wiring, so there’s no conflict with other aftermarket things like alarms or remote starters. PowerBoard NX eliminates issues where the factory just used a different color wire the day they made your truck.”
A survey of mobile-electronics media reveals several other trending technologies that the specialty-equipment industry will want to continue to keep its eye on. These include driver assistance/safety and natural speech recognition.
Until recently, inputting voice commands into a vehicle’s navigation or other infotainment system could prove to be a frustrating experience, to say the least. Short, rote commands often had to be given in clear, precise diction and order. However, that is changing with devices and systems that can much more easily decipher natural speech patterns, sentences, questions and instructions. Still, Daniels is not convinced that natural speech recognition is an idea whose time has come.
“It’s one of those things that you sort of cringe when you’re talking about it,” he explained. “There are two sides to it—there’s the technology and then there’s the practical use. As far as the technology goes, I think Google has outstepped everybody in its ability to understand and recognize different nuances of speech, and I’m very excited about that. On the other hand, Synch introduced this concept to the mainstream public a number of years ago. But think about the reality of people using that in the car. If I’m driving with someone having a conversation, am I really going to tell them to be quiet so I can tell my radio to turn the volume up or down? Voice recognition is a very one-on-one type of technology in practical use.”
Daniels is far more convinced that the broader area of vehicle safety is quickly becoming a major growth opportunity for the aftermarket.
“Safety, especially in the aftermarket, used to be a category that was sort of the red-headed stepchild of vehicle security,” he said. “Now what you’re seeing is safety as its own category. That’s driven not only by the OEMs putting a lot of marketing dollars and innovation behind it but also by the aftermarket with new product categories like rear-view cameras and mirrors with view screens so you can see what the cameras see behind you. You’re also seeing some technologies that were previously available only at the OE level, like lane departure warning systems and things like that. The price points are still high but, like anything, we expect those to begin coming down.”
Based on new products introduced at the 2012 SEMA Show, the aftermarket is indeed quickly catching up with the OEMs, especially in the area of rearview or blind-spot cameras/monitors and parking assistance. Of course, specialty-equipment companies are also at work on bringing radar and multiple-sensor technologies to the aftermarket to help prevent vehicle collisions. However, the definition of “safety” is also expanding to include products that bring a general peace of mind to vehicle owners beyond crash protection.
“These trends have hit home for us, especially in the realm of teen driving safety,” said Fierek at Directed Electronics, which has also recently launched a Viper SmartStart GPS product to address safety issues raised by young drivers. “Now a parent can receive alerts if their vehicle exceeds a set speed, if the vehicle leaves a geographic area or it enters a particular geographic area and, last but not least, if the vehicle so much as leaves the garage.”
Meanwhile, several aftermarket companies have also introduced products that effectively disengage a smartphone’s ability to text
There is some argument about what all these trends might mean for the aftermarket. Many are concerned that the increased sophistication of vehicle technologies and factory infotainment units may marginalize the specialty-equipment industry, forcing it to offer trifling electronic accessories that can’t really do much. Daniels, however, is one of many trend watchers who disagrees.
“At the end of the day, consumers always want personalization,” he said. “That’s always going to drive the aftermarket and drive the companies that have the ability to make new product.”