Smart car + smart phone: Just how will this marriage work?

The smart car and the smart phone were destined for each other. The romance began years ago with the introduction of handsfree kits. It grew when smart phones became a prime source of music played through in-car infotainment systems. And now, the relationship is becoming even more intimate, as smartphones become a source of applications and services for the car.

It's true that cars are shipping with more and more applications built in, many of which focus on safety, security, or navigation. But automakers have an opportunity to complement these applications with the many innovative applications and services offered on smart phones and other mobile devices. Many of these mobile apps can enhance the driving experience; some are even designed for in-vehicle use. They include maps with local search capabilities that can find local restaurants, and services that can track down the nearest available parking spot.

Automakers get this. As a result, they're looking for new ways to leverage the mobile service infrastructure — the OnStar Mobile App and BMW ConnectedDrive being prime examples. Still, to achieve this goal, automakers must not only enhance connectivity between the smart phone and the car's infotainment system, but also implement techniques that minimize driver distraction.

Currrently, automakers have several options to choose from. These include:

Remote terminal — The application runs on the phone and a remote terminal client in the car replicates the phone's HMI. For example:

Remote skins — The application runs on the phone and a remote skin in the car controls the phone application. For example:

Tethering — The application resides in the car and the phone acts as a modem, providing a connection to the cloud. Cloud-based applications can provide a user interface, or HMI, through technologies such as Flash and HTML 5.

Each approach has its benefits — and drawbacks. For instance, the remote terminal approach automatically provides access to new phone applications as they become available. But to maintain driver safety, the car infotainment system and the smart phone must work in conjunction to block applications that don’t present an appropriate "car mode" interface while the vehicle is moving.

The remote skin, on the other hand, allows the driver to use the infotainment system’s screen and input controls, which are larger and better designed for in-vehicle interaction than those of a phone. However, to keep pace with the rapid evolution in mobile services, the remote skin software in the infotainment system needs to support dynamic upgrades.

As for tethering, many phones already support it. Moreover, the back-end can change without affecting the car, which keeps the car fresh. That said, it's often unclear whether this approach conforms to the tethering agreement with your cellular carrier.

Put simply, no one approach is a panacea. For that reason, QNX takes the agnostic route and supports all of them.

Next month, at SAE Convergence 2010, QNX will demonstrate these various approaches. And just wait 'til you see the car that QNX has chosen as the demo platform — but more on that in a subsequent post...

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