A storm is brewing in the auto industry, and the lethargic system of checks and balances must yield to the demand for advanced in-car infotainment and mobile compatibility. The automotive industry is comfortable with a 3-5 year vehicle development process, from market research, to executive buy-in, to concept cars, to production, and finally, sales. In the mobile world, 3-5 years is an eternity. That’s generations of smartphones, operating systems, and more, which consumers adopt and integrate in seconds.
The last few years of in-car infotainment advancements have been tragic in comparison to mobile device developments, especially around app usage. Fortunately, that’s all about to change, with the introduction of platforms like Apple’s CarPlay, Google’s Open Automotive Alliance, and Microsoft’s Windows in the Car. These platforms are the first iterations of advanced app-like functionality in the car, which will serve two important purposes:
(1) Dramatically decrease dangerous mobile device usage behind the wheel
(2) Seamlessly connect the mobile usage experience between the outside world and the driver’s seat
In this post, we’ll outline the current state of in-car apps, what’s coming very soon, and what we can look forward to in the future. Plus, we’ll explain why tracking in-vehicle app engagement will be a critical piece of forming user behavior profiles.
The most advanced infotainment systems in current production cars include Ford’s Sync (powered by Microsoft) and Cadillac’s CUE, which allow integration with some mobile apps like Pandora and Spotify. The big win of these systems is that they’re piggy-backing on the features of current apps, though they don’t offer any new features yet. This boils down to an easy transition from mobile device app navigation to in-car screen navigation.
The closest features current infotainment systems have to vehicle-centric-apps are in-unit settings for:
- Climate control
- Traffic reporting
- Weather updates
In some ways, these digital settings are more annoying than physical buttons, where you can keep both eyes on the road and feel out an adjustment for air condition power level, for example. That’s largely the fault of a less intuitive user experience rather than a demand for physical controls. Voice commands have tried to fill that gap, but unless you’re driving alone, it’s not always appropriate to cut out the radio or a conversation to order instructions to your car. Worse even is when the system misinterprets your command.
While vital to user adoption and ease-of-use, these soon-to-arrive (starting this year in some models) in-car apps are just scratching the surface of what’s to come.
The goal of in-car infotainment will be to make the experience behind the wheel an extension of a mobile device experience. Adjusting vehicle driving settings like seat position, suspension stiffness, steering weight, and climate control will all be a few taps or slides away. Settings won’t be buried behind prompts so as to distract drivers, just like accessing the best features of an app is far less complex than getting there via a responsive website. Also, as more of the car dashboard becomes about the screens, drivers will be able to keep both eyes forward, while still accessing every feature or setting. For example, heads up displays and digital tachometers and speedometers will also be able to tap into available apps.
Looking 5-10 years down the line, the autonomous driving systems from automakers like Mercedes and Volvo, and tech companies like Google will become completely self-driving functions. When less attention is required to get you from point A to point B, users will be free to explore other in-car app engagement that might otherwise be very dangerous. It will take a long while before at least some level of human interaction is needed to safety commute in a vehicle, but in-car app engagement can and will grow with advances in safety and consumer tech.
Beyond technical leaps to make in-car apps more intuitive, the best way for automakers and app developers to understand how to make the next generation of in-car apps better will be through analytics. By tracking how and when users engage with certain apps, and seeing what causes users to struggle through an app experience, developers will be able to improve the experience. For example, if suspension settings are “appified,” and users prove to be stumbling back and forth between screens to properly adjust the ride, it’s probably time to overhaul the app flow and user path. Learning and improving ease-of-use with in-car apps will be more important than on any mobile device. After all, distracted walking will have far less dramatic consequences than distracted driving.
If you aren’t sold on the benefits of in-car appification, think of it this way: the more rapidly intuitive apps are integrated into vehicle systems, the sooner drivers will never have to take their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road to access entertainment, safety, and convenience features. Automakers are finally cluing in, and with development help from big names like Apple, Google, and Microsoft, we’ll see awesome app experiences in new vehicles very soon.
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