Is It Time for Manufacturers to Offer Do-It-Yourself Infotainment Systems? [Op/Ed]

Android Auto in the 2015 Hyundai Sonata
Android Auto in the 2015 Hyundai Sonata

Development time for a new car, even just a refresh of a current model, is measured in years, not months. Because of this, the infotainment systems on new cars tend to be out of date almost as soon as the car is launched, as car development can’t keep up with the speed of technology.

For example, the infotainment system in the brand-new 2016 Honda HR-V already looks like it’s about two years old. Even the better systems, like the Uconnect system in Fiat-Chrysler vehicles, lag behind current smartphone technology.

A lot of the problem is that it’s not easy to upgrade the systems. Sometimes, it requires a complete removal and replacement of the entire system, either with a third-party system or an upgraded OEM system.

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Apple and Google are trying to change this. Apple’s Car Play and Google’s Android Auto are both attempts to take some of the heavy lifting away from the car and move it to the owner’s smartphones.

With Apple’s Car Play, for example, the phone, music and navigation functions can be moved to an iPhone through apps that are controllable through the car’s interface. Even Siri, Apple’s voice-recognition interface, can be controlled through the car’s voice recognition buttons.

Are consumers ready to be more involved in their cars’ technology? Hyundai and Fiat-Chrysler seem to think so. Hyundai just announced compatibility with Android Auto on Sonata models – the first cars to have such compatibility – and the upgrade is something that the owner can do themselves. The upgrade is available for download on the Internet, which can be copied to a USB drive and used to upgrade the system.

Chrysler-300c-Uconnect
Similarly, the patch for FCA’s Uconnect hacking bug – demonstrated on a Jeep Cherokee by two famous hackers – can be installed using a download copied to a thumb drive, allowing the owner to perform the maintenance themselves without the inconvenience of having to make an appointment with their dealer’s service department.

apple car play
Apple’s Car Play (photo: apple.com)

This push toward allowing owners to control their car’s infotainment systems is a step in the right direction for both the manufacturers and consumers. Instead of having to develop an entirely new system that will be out of date the second the car hits showroom floors, manufacturers can work toward an open API (application program interface) that can allow apps to control all aspects of the car’s technology, including climate control and other settings.

Each manufacturer can develop an app that would be used to control specific aspects of the vehicle, while letting things like navigation, music and phone connectivity be controlled by smartphone apps, either written by Apple and Google or by third-party companies.

For those without smartphones, the manufacturers can embed their app within the system, still separating the software from the hardware in a way that would make upgrades easy.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), Interior Touchscreen Display
This technology isn’t new. Many phone manufacturers make smartphones that all run Android. The hardware becomes almost irrelevant – the software is the key, and because it’s flexible it can run on any type of hardware. This same paradigm can be used in cars, where the hardware under the surface no longer matters, just the software on top.

What do you think? Keep the conversation going in the comments below.

Check out this TFLcar video of everything you need to know about Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system:

John Inama
John’s love of cars started an early age. He bought his first issue of Road & Track at age 12, and has wanted to be an automotive writer ever since. He believes in the old adage that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. When not writing about cars, John is a professional computer geek and lives with his wife and dogs on the high plains of Wyoming.