Which is better: Embedded solutions or Smartphone integration or both?

For each OEM, the basic decision about infotainment is this: whether to “embed” most of the enabling hardware and software for wireless communications into the infrastructure of the vehicle, essentially creating their own mobile devices — or to minimize such integration and concentrate on producing the best possible interfaces with cell phones, smart phones and other devices consumers already are using and bringing into the vehicle.

Contributing factors:

The demographics of the customer: Unanimously, OEMs see interest in heavily embedded devices and systems being stronger with older people and higher in luxury segments.

Conversely, the younger a customer, the more interested he or she is likely to be in a tethered approach.

The rate of change: Automakers have long had difficulty keeping up with the incredibly fast pace of change in digital technology compared with the relatively slow speed at which new systems and technologies take root in vehicles and with the overall product cycle of cars. But now the tension is getting worse.

“All one needs to do is look at the success Ford has had with Sync”, Newcomb (senior editor, technology, for Edmunds.com) said, “and how quickly and frequently the company has been able to roll out new applications for the system – to realize that it’s the winning formula.

“And leveraging the mobile devices that drivers bring into vehicles, and that they change so frequently, is a great strategy for staying current technology-wise, as opposed to relying on embedded systems that can easily become outdated and aren’t as easy to upgrade.”

The tyranny of apps: Consumers increasingly expect to be able to use all their favorite websites and apps on their smart phones in the vehicle even if it isn’t safe for them to do so while driving. If an automaker’s embedded infotainment system tries to limit these desires, then consumers will favor systems that instead help them — or they’ll simply work their fingers over their smart phones without a boost from an onboard system.

The issue of redundancy: One of the big advantages of a tethered system is it doesn’t require users of onboard infotainment services to subscribe to another wireless service, such as OnStar or Safety Connect.

“As their own devices gain capabilities, consumers can choose to pay for them if they want, and we at Ford don’t have to charge them a premium when they bring them into the vehicle,” Marchwicki said. “And they can keep the devices and accounts that they already have.”

The robustness of onboard systems: For what safety services promote and offer, they really can’t depend on brought-in mobile devices. The reliability of mobile phones, for example, can vary greatly depending on the type of device, the carrier, variances in signal strength by location, and even interference from within the vehicle.

BMW has even obtained a grant from the federal government to test a “severe-injury algorithm” under its BMW Assist system that would use data from an accident to determine whether — based on the type and severity of the accident — the occupants of the vehicle in the crash likely would require trauma care. Then the system would make a 911 call automatically. The subscriber would have 10 seconds after hearing the call being initiated to cancel it.

“If you’re relying on a Bluetooth-connected device like Sync,” BMW’s Fran Dance said, “that device may or may not be available to make that emergency call – and certainly doesn’t send this kind of crash data.”

The role of safety: The issue of how infotainment affects driver and passenger safety is on everyone’s lips. “There have to be restrictions applied to these applications or we’re going to create an environment in the vehicle that is downright irresponsible,” said one auto executive.

Some, for instance, argue safety concerns remain one significant drawback of Ford’s Sync, despite its obvious other advantages. “Directionally, overall, it’s better to have a lot information flow through the car where it’s accessed and visible to the car rather than having drivers fumble around with different devices,” said Brad Stertz, a spokesman for the Volkswagen Group.

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