Consulting » In-car technology – Top Gear

Few would argue that staying alert behind the wheel is the most important aspect of driving a car, which is why the concept of turning vehicles into ‘infotainment’ portals is somewhat disturbing. However, the motor industry is working flat-out to find ways of solving the seemingly impossible dilemma of combining full internet connectivity and rich in-car entertainment with enhanced driver safety.

Despite the fact that you will find agreement everywhere that the main business of the driver is to drive, there is no stopping the industry’s rush to embed broadband connectivity and rich media services into every car dashboard. The industry has realised that once wireless broadband is available inside the car, there is no limit to the range and quality of services that could be delivered to the car via the internet.

Location-based services will feed off global positioning satellite (GPS) systems that indicate the car’s whereabouts to within a metre or so. They can keep drivers informed of anything from football scores to the location of pubs, restaurants and motorway stops coming up on their route. Traffic news can be personalised with precision and updates delivered in real-time, giving continuous information on the state of the road ahead. Entertainment services can deliver songs on request and in-car TV can display movies or sporting events on demand.

Whether all this is compatible with the driver keeping the car on the road remains to be seen. However, there are also a raft of specialised control systems being lab tested by manufacturers at the moment that will enhance driver safety. Based on proximity-sensing and the kind of ‘fly by wire’ systems used in modern aircraft and jet fighters, these systems can help deter collisions and take over control from drivers who are distracted by, say, Arsenal’s latest goal flashing up on the in-car TV set.

While this last series of innovations might take some time to reach us in their entirety, infotainment systems that go beyond the car stereo and CD changer are already available. According to a report by market analyst Frost & Sullivan, the market for in-car infotainment systems is currently worth some EUR2.6bn and is being driven by a spectacular rate of innovation. By 2010, Frost & Sullivan estimate this market will be worth some EUR9.2bn. In the initial instance, the innovations will be relatively unspectacular; for example, DVD players replacing CD players.

The greater storage capacity of DVD disks will add a further level of detail to mapping systems that draw on pre-stored data. Advanced route guidance features, mostly an after-sales option on high-end vehicles, will become much more mainstream, according to Frost & Sullivan, and radio-based sat-nav systems will start to make an impact by 2006.

Vincent St Claire, fleet managing director at car leasing company Arval PHH, warns that while such systems might have cachet for drivers, they add very little by way of residual value to a vehicle. “Basically, as an employer, you are just (spending money) when you add these options to your vehicles,” he says. The addition of telematics, which can feed information on how the vehicle is being driven back to the fleet manager, is much more likely to provide a real benefit, he says. This market is likely to reach some EUR4.7bn by 2009.

Bryan Stockwell, business development manager at location-based services company Mobile Commerce, argues that analysts could be underestimating the speed of the transformation of in-car information services.

He points out that wireless connectivity using GPRS mobile phone services offers a cheaper, more ubiquitous way of determining a driver’s location as it draws on readily available technology – the mobile phone – rather than relying on expensive retrofitting or factory-fitted equipment to move into the mainstream.

While mobile phone location analysis is less accurate than GPS systems, it can locate a vehicle to within a 50-metre radius in the best case, in a dense urban area, and within a 200-metre radius most of the time. Given the speed of a car, that is about as precise as one needs to be to provide a whole range of location-specific services.

“The four major mobile phone operators feed us the cell-based location information, and we can push content out to drivers with in-car mobile phones with a good degree of precision,” says Stockwell. “Alternatively, drivers can pull down a range of location-specific information services from us. The content on our servers is geo-coded (specific to a particular area). What we do is spatial searching to locate the driver’s grid references and then serve up relevant content based on that location and the driver’s infotainment preferences,” he explains.