Screw ‘infotainment,’ why can’t I just jam an iPad in my dashboard?

screw infotainment headerCars and car tech make for a great pair, the likes of which are only rivaled by a select few of history’s dynamic duos: Sonny and Cher, The Captain and Tennille — Dan Haggerty and his legendary beard.

But no relationship is perfect; they all require a strong commitment, a desire to work hard at it and a willingness to grow, evolve and own trimmers. Or at least that’s what Dr. Phil tells us.

The current in-car infotainment marriage is like that. It started off rocky, with only a mild attraction but it has now developed into a hot and steamy love affair. They’re practically inseparable. In fact, more and more cars today, at most any price point, may sport navigation, voice control or some type of smartphone integration. Or they may be offered as options.

But despite this growing relationship, one question still remains: Why can’t I just dock my phone or tablet to my car and use its familiar features and OS instead of using some clunky proprietary interface? Why am I tethered to systems that in many ways prove vastly inferior to the device in my pocket?

The answers aren’t likely to shock you but they do provide some insight into where the industry is – and where it’s itching to go.

Perhaps the most straightforward reason why we can’t use an iPad or smartphone for all our infotainment needs is reliability. The electronics and computers inside vehicles are designed and intended to work all the time regardless of conditions.

Anyone who has ever left an iPad overnight in their car in Minnesota or on a sweltering hot summer day in Phoenix knows that they simply won’t work – maybe ever again. The circuitry inside is designed for more people-friendly climate ranges and simply can’t endure either extreme.

The current crops of systems inside vehicles are not like that. They might not work well – but they typically will work regardless of temperature extremes. If your iPad were to control the heating and cooling  in your car and you let it sit overnight in 20-below zero temperatures, it’s going to be at least a few minutes before it thaws out and you can use it to crank up the heat.

…It won’t be long until we see a more driver-focused solution for in-car connectivity…

And then there is the matter of standardization. Most Android devices use the same ports (often micro-USB) so that’s not as much of an issue. Up until recently, however, Apple devices used a 30-pin connector while the latest iPad and the iPhone 5 use Apple’s new, smaller “Lightning” connector. Therefore, simply building a docking system wouldn’t work because there is no standardized connector. And even if you did cater to just Apple devices you would alienate a lot of Apple users with older versions.

And let’s not forget that a company like Apple likes having its own proprietary connector so it’s doubtful they would adopt any mass-market changes any time soon.

In fact, BMW already has a docking system it provides in many of its vehicles, which allows an iPhone to be placed inside the center console’s armrest. Drivers can conveniently dock and connect their iPhone to the car without fussing over cables. And while this is an elegant solution for iPhone owners, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows 8 users are effectively screwed.

Imagine if BMW’s system was more than just an extra component and phone features were actually integrated into essential aspects of the car’s interface – like navigation and climate control.

And while your phone and tablet are absolutely fabulous the majority of the time, there are hardware limitations inherent to the devices themselves.

Cars that support navigation have GPS antennas built into them, making their signal strength superior in most cases. Using your phones built-in GPS  inside a four-wheeled metal box certainly weakens its signal strength but will typically suffice for drives  in the city. However,  in remote areas or driving through tunnels where the possibility of a weakened or dropped signal is altogether more likely, that simply won’t do.

But let’s say you got past all of that and just magically placed your phone or tablet inside the car. How do you prevent drivers from playing games, watching videos, or performing other distracting tasks? And what about passengers? How do you safely implement safety checks – but still provide access to passengers that aren’t behind the wheel?

The reality is, these questions have yet to be answered but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being addressed.

One such group aiming to help in all of this is the Car Connectivity Consortium. Formed back in 2011, the CCC is working to standardize in-car connectivity with its MirrorLink technology and by bringing together companies from the automotive world and the consumer electronics industry. You can check out the full list of members here but some of the more prominent ones include Ford, GM, HTC, Mercedes-Benz, Nokia, Samsung, Toyota, and VW.

bmw iphone docking systemPart of the CCS’s tasks includes writing technical specifications for devices, certifying products, and providing app developers with guidelines. Remember when we asked who would dictate what programs and apps could be used while driving? The CCC is a part of that process – or at least it’s trying to be.

MirrorLink is fairly straightforward. You simple get in, plug-in, and go. The technologies it uses are fairly common, such as Bluetooth, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), Virtual Network Computing (VNC), which is used to replicate (mirror) the phone’s display on a vehicles head unit, and Real-Time Protocol (RTP) for audio streaming.

By cabling a device that supports Mirrorlink into a car that supports the technology, drivers have access and can control a number of their phones features straight from the vehicle’s controls.

While MirrorLink doesn’t go so far as to replace a vehicle’s head unit altogether, it is making certain strides to help unify the connected car experience by leveraging consumer’s phones more so than a OEM’s proprietary system.

Of course two big absentees from the CCC are Google and Apple, so standardizing the industry without two of the mobile world’s key companies will indeed prove difficult.

Finally, the automakers’ themselves need to be considered obstacles as well. Right now, navigation and in-car entertainment/information packages come as multi-thousand dollar add-ons. Like Apple and Google have done, automakers want to create an ecosystem that consumers are tied into.

It’s hard enough switching from devices that cost a fraction of what a car costs, so the idea for automakers is to create a framework that users will get to know, invest in (either through apps or simply time) and stick with.

Drivers looking to bring their own devices needn’t worry though as the move to such a future is more a question of if rather than when. We need only look at the recent exclusion of automotive mainstays like CDs players in favor of Bluetooth or AUX inputs for phones and data-driven devices in more and more automobiles to see that the landscape is changing within.

With in-vehicle navigation and entertainment are still in a state of relative infancy, it won’t be long until we see a more driver-focused solution for in-car connectivity but until the industry learns to walk it won’t be able to run and that means relying on our devices to run the show will simply have to wait… for now.

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