CARS HAVE BEEN stuffed with technology for some time, featuring microprocessors and computer control units to support everything from fuel injection and engine performance, to GPS navigation and audio playback.
But as consumer technology advances and people get used to the apps and services they use at work and home, there is an expectation that car infotainment units must do more than offer basic satnav, DAB radio and smartphone connectivity.
This trend has caught the attention of the technology industry's biggest players, and has seen them move beyond their traditional business areas or push the envelope of the tech they currently supply to the car world.
The INQUIRER has a roundup of what the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nvidia and others are doing to transform the analogue and sometimes isolated process of driving into a connected and digital experience.
Apple's main drive into the automotive sector has been with CarPlay. Rather than create a version of iOS specifically designed for infotainment systems, Apple has instead developed software that establishes a digital handshake between a vehicle's infotainment system and an iPhone, via the company's proprietary Lightning cable.
CarPlay effectively allows iPhone apps to be integrated with a car's digital systems, so that they can be controlled using the car's controls, rather than have the driver fiddling with a mobile device when hurtling down a motorway.
CarPlay can also be controlled using Apple's Siri virtual assistant, which no doubt has a few dry road-related witticisms programmed into it.
But before Apple fans get any ideas about playing Angry Birds at 70mph, CarPlay has a limited number of apps that are capable of being pumped onto an infotainment unit's display.
Currently, CarPlay allows the use of an iPhone's messaging, phone, iTunes, videos and Apple Maps apps, although Apple has plans to work with developers to allow CarPlay to work with third-party apps, so swiping right on Tinder while turning right could become a reality.
Third-party apps confirmed for CarPlay include Spotify, iHeartRadio and Stitcher, and more are expected as the system matures.
Unfortunately, Apple fans and petrol heads looking to rush out and jump into a car equipped with CarPlay will need deep pockets or an irresponsible bank manager before they can tell Siri to play Born to be Wild while mashing the accelerator.
CarPlay is currently available in the Ferrari FF, a car that costs over £200,000 and has a V12 engine that swigs fuel faster than a rum-addicted pirate.
More affordable CarPlay cars exist in the form of Volvo's XC90, and Apple has plans to put the system into cars from Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Honda and Hyundai this year. Other car makers have announced plans to integrate CarPlay further down the road.
Beyond CarPlay, the rumour mill has churned out speculation that Apple may be working on a driverless car to challenge Google's forays into the automotive world.
It is not hard to picture a sleekly proportioned car featuring the Apple logo, covered in light aluminium panels and with an immaculately designed steering wheel, which continually breaks down until Tim Cook announces that people are driving it incorrectly.
However, even though Apple has pockets deep enough to buy a car company or even set up its own, it's more likely to partner with a car brand that can carry out the internal engineering while Apple works on the driverless tech.
Google's car plans are initially similar to Apple's, with Android Auto as the rival to CarPlay and a dose of Material Design and compatibility with smartphones running Android 5.0 Lollipop.
Given the popularity of Google Maps, Android Auto gives direction-dysfunctional drivers access to the mapping service, which displays turn-by-turn directions on an infotainment system screen.
To keep drivers' hands on the wheel, Android Auto can be used with a car's controls or voice control. Drivers can access Google Music and Spotify to give them something to listen to when cruising down motorways or stuck in traffic jams.
Unlike CarPlay, Android Auto is more accessible to drivers without ivory back scratchers or accounts with Coutts.
Android Auto can be added to existing cars by installing aftermarket infotainment systems provided by car-tech specialist Pioneer.
Few car brands offer support for Android Auto, but Google has the likes of Ford, Honda, Jeep, Kia, Mazda, Fiat and Peugeot on its books as proposed supporters of the software.
People desperate to get Android Auto now will need to opt for the 2015 Hyundai Sonata, which is currently the only car natively to support the system.
But Google's most exciting car activity is its driverless technology and prototypes, which have completed over a million miles on public streets in the US with only 13 minor crashes and bumps thus far, although Google frequently blames human error for the fender-benders.
Apple's driverless car project is little more than a rumour, but Google has nine prototype cars that lack a steering wheel and pedals, and 23 Lexus RX450h SUVs equipped with robo-driving tech, leaving its major rival in its tracks.
Google also showed its commitment to producing car technology by launching a purpose-built Android-based car system initiative earlier this year called the Open Automotive Alliance, which includes Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and Nvidia.
The aim is to use Android as a platform that offers compatibility for common software across car bands, while allowing manufacturers to customise the operating system to suit their brand and vehicles.
Microsoft is in an odd position compared with its rivals. The company's car-specific software, Windows Embedded Automotive, is a platform that underpins infotainment systems, and has found its way into cars from Ford, Kia, Mazda and Fiat.
However, Kia has moved over to Android, and Ford has opted to build its Sync 3 infotainment system on BlackBerry software rather than the car version of Windows, leaving Microsoft down two major manufacturers.
But, in a turnaround of events, Ford revealed in March that Sync 3 will be supported by Microsoft's Azure cloud platform to update its infotainment software incrementally and on the go. So what Microsoft lost in embedded software, it gained in cloud services.
As cars become more connected and carry faster wireless network connections, it is likely that cloud platforms like Azure will be used more frequently to support the software and apps in infotainment systems.
BlackBerry's QNX Car Platform is arguably one of its most valuable assets, as it provides the operating system and middleware for a car's infotainment unit and connects discrete systems, such as phone, multimedia and navigation, while enabling a car maker to add its own features and interfaces on top.
QNX is at the core of many car companies' infotainment systems, and acts as support for third-party hardware and apps to be integrated in an infotainment unit, such as connecting an iPod into a car's sound system, so BlackBerry has a solid future in the car world.
The concept of integrating multiple systems is BlackBerry's main agenda with cars, and the firm presented its Maserati QNX technology concept car at CES 2015 to show how safety aids can be combined with navigation systems and acoustic software to improve a driver's overall awareness.
Processor chips from Nvidia are often used to power the graphical interfaces of infotainment systems, but the company has ambitions to provide chips that can help power driverless cars.
The Tegra X1 revealed at CES 2015 sports the same 256-core Maxwell graphics processing architecture found in powerful PC graphics cards, but with an eight-core, 64-bit processor.
This so-called mobile supercomputer chip is described by Nvidia as a powerful processor that can help a car understand what is happening around it by processing data from the vehicle's sensors.
Two of these processors are used in Nvidia's Drive PX platform which has deep neural learning capabilities to make use of the harvested data to classify various objects and obstacles on the road. As such, Drive PX could act as a bridge between in-car system automation and fully-fledged driverless cars.
Nvidia also has the Maxwell graphics chip-powered Drive CX platform, which works with software called Drive Studio to give infotainment interface designers the ability to inject rich 3D graphics into screens in a car.
Harman, a name normally associated with its Harman Kardon audio equipment division, is a major player in the infotainment world, producing the base units for many of the biggest car brands, such as Audi, BMW and Ferrari.
Much like BlackBerry's QNX offers a software platform, Harman creates infotainment hardware platforms that often integrate with QNX and allow car brands to build additional features on top.
Harman provides infotainment systems that can support the streaming of HD audio content and connectivity between cars and homes, but some of its most interesting technology is in the audio systems and driver aids the company has developed.
Harman's Individual Sound Zones in-car audio technology uses speakers in head rests with digital signal processing to separate different parts of a car into sound zones. This means that a front seat passenger can conduct an intimate call with a loved one, while another in the rear can get lost in thrash metal without causing the eardrums of other passengers to bleed.
Harman also has its HALOsonic road noise cancelling technology, which aims to cut out the droning sound of tyres on tarmac when listening to music in a car.
Data is fed into the system from accelerometers on the chassis of a car, which measure the correlation between the vibrations coming from the road and the noise generated in the cabin. This is then relayed to a processor that plays an inverse sound wave through the car's audio system to cancel out road noise without butchering the musical signals.
Driver distraction is another major focus for Harman's technology development. This has resulted in the creation of gesture and voice controls for infotainment systems that cut out the need for a driver to squint at buttons on the unit, and prod and twiddle switches to change a music track or adjust the satnav.
Borrowing from military aviation technology, Harman has also worked on head-up displays (HUDs) for cars, which project a small display in, but not obscuring, the driver's field of vision.
Information such as navigation directions, speed and distance from the car in front can then be projected from the infotainment and car systems onto a section of the windscreen.
The HUD has been designed to ensure that journey information is provided to the driver but their eyes are kept on the road ahead rather than distracted by glancing down at dashboards and infotainment screens.
As the technology trends of cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things start to converge, connected cars will be in the centre and will become a focus for technology and car firms each with their own ambitions to create the smart car tech of the future. µ
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