Nearly a year ago at the Telematics Update Content & Apps event in San Diego I was asked why the industry hasn’t simply standardized car stereo interfaces to ensure a safe, predictable experience in all cars. This simple question – which some might even regard as absurd – struck at the heart of the challenge of automotive HMI development. It also implied two other questions: Are we making any progress in HMI? Is there an ideal automotive HMI proposition?

The answer to the former question is “yes,” and the answer to the second question is “no.”  Automotive HMI is the great dashboard differentiator.  Like so much in the car, it is an art leavened with science and a science often overwhelmed by art.  And now you can stir marketing into the mix.  OEMs regard HMI as an essential element of vehicle branding.

After more than 100 years of designing cars, each dashboard remains a blank slate upon which a car maker and its suppliers carve their vision of in-vehicle interaction.  And even industry alliances have made little headway including, most recently, the GENIVI Alliance and the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC).

GENIVI has left itself out of the HMI conversation seeing HMI as an inherently differentiating technology that is contradictory to the non-differentiating code sharing objectives of its charter.  The CCC’s Terminal Mode connectivity specification, on the other hand, focuses on both connectivity technology and HMI and has stepped directly into the HMI crossfire.

 Car Connectivity Consortium ventures where GENIVI fears not tread

Far from getting easier with each passing decade, the automotive HMI experience becomes more complex as choices multiply with the emergence of new technologies.  The CCC has sought to toss a lifeline to automotive designers with its safe mobile-phone interfacing credentials but, so far, only 18 companies have seen fit to join the consortium.

The industry is caught in the vortex of an HMI remix as the imperative to integrate wireless devices takes hold.  Dials buttons and switches are suddenly passé.  (In fact drives for removable media are on the way out as well.) 

The CCC spec attempts to define the parameters of a cross-platform mobile device interface that will enable screen replication of the mobile device modulated by policy management elements.  But the Terminal Mode proposition is being undermined by the more powerful urge in the industry to differentiate.

The challenge for OEMs is great.  Wireless devices arrive in the market having passed through several different hands including the hardware manufacturer, the software and operating system provider and the wireless carrier.  All of this means that car makers face a perplexing decision making process with no easy right or wrong choices.

The issues at the heart of this decision making process are the choice of connectivity technology and the HMI strategy for enabling safe and convenient and, hopefully, intuitive driver access to on-board and off-board services and content.  The connectivity technology candidates include: Terminal Mode, Bluetooth SPP, USB, Wi-Fi, Aux In, iPod Out and VNC.

Each of these connectivity solutions has the tacit or stated approval of different OEMs, Tier Ones, handset makers and carriers.  Each of these solutions also has significant HMI implications regarding device control of the dashboard or vehicle HMI control of the device.  One of these technologies, Terminal Mode, is supported by an industry consortium: the CCC.

While the involvement of an industry consortium implies broad industry support for a solution that can build market momentum, it also implies stagnation and compromise.  The automotive industry has lost patience with stagnation and compromise and is rushing new systems to market at an unprecedented pace.

Terminal Mode being left behind by OEM rush to connect

Terminal Mode was intended to speed mobile device integration efforts by defining a protocol for safely reproducing the mobile phone interface in the dashboard.  The thought process was that consumers would prefer to access their mobile device functionality on a larger screen with much of the familiar device-side HMI preserved.

Unfortunately for Terminal Mode supporters, the market has galloped forward without waiting for the organization’s standards setters.  Ford and its SYNC platform are partly to blame for this industry disconnect.  With Ford surging toward 3M SYNC systems installed, competitors have felt pressured to move ahead without the CCC.

For its part, the CCC has struggled to establish its global credibility having been born from a group of German car makers in concert with Finnish handset maker Nokia.  The leadership of CCC was then put in the hands of Nokia, according to its current president, who is a Nokia director.  Of course, after its recent significant global market share loss Nokia now faces much higher priorities than focusing on a global standards-based mobile device integration campaign.

To further complicate matters, Nokia’s weakest market is the most essential market for mobile device integration: The U.S.  (Nokia’s current smartphone share in the U.S. is estimated by Strategy Analytics at 2%.)  Smartphone connectivity in the car is currently being pursued in the industry mainly with the objective of enabling access to streaming music content.  The U.S. is the largest music market in the world.

Ford and Fiat show the way

There are actually three essential application areas for smartphone connectivity in the car: communication, navigation and entertainment.  Communication was the first to be resolved with Bluetooth hands-free phone interfaces enabled by voice technology.  Fiat and Ford were leaders in this integration effort.

Navigation was the next priority for smartphone connectivity.  Here, again, Fiat and Ford have led the way with mobile device integration solutions enabling navigation.

Ford has also been in the forefront of entertainment content integration from a mobile device.  In fact, Ford’s consistent and fast-paced success has put extraordinary pressure on the industry to respond.  Terminal Mode arose as a cross-platform mobile device integration alternative to Ford SYNC and Fiat Blue&Me but its arrival has highlighted the limitations of the automotive industry’s well-established consortium-based standards setting process.

As an unproven lab-produced standard Terminal Mode is subject to the ongoing tinkering of consortium members, including those that might block advances.  But even under the best of circumstances its success can be undermined by a lack of market adoption by makers of handsets or head units.  In fact, even wireless carriers have the power to interfere with Terminal Mode’s progress especially as they begin to play an increasingly assertive role in the telematics market.

Notable names among CCC members, non-members

CCC members include OEMs Toyota, GM, Volkswagen, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and PSA.  Notably absent from the CCC’s member list are Ford, BMW, Nissan, Renault, Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, Chrysler, Kia, and Fiat. 

The list of head unit makers among the CCC membership is also short but includes Alpine, Delphi and Denso.  The list of center stack system suppliers not included among CCC members is long and includes Continental, Bosch, Harman and JCI, all of which have their own connectivity solutions.  Most notable by its absence is Clarion which has adopted RealVNC’s technology which is based on the same VNC technology of Terminal Mode.

Samsung, Sony, HTC, and LG Electronics are all named as examples of handset makers that have joined CCC and will support the Terminal Mode protocol.  Apple, RIM and Google are still missing from the CCC membership list which does not include a single wireless carrier.

In spite of being a CCC member, GM has already chosen its own proprietary path with the announcement of its MyLink Bluetooth SPP-based smartphone connectivity system.  MyLink might one day adopt Terminal Mode protocols, but today has nothing to do with the CCC.

Produced in cooperation with Panasonic Automotive and QNX, GM took over the MyLink brand from OnStar.  (OnStar’s MyLink smartphone app is now called RemoteLink and is on its own development trajectory.)  Similarly, Toyota, another CCC member, is pursuing its Entune Bluetooth SPP-based connection with Terminal Mode nowhere to be found.

Harman pushing Aha Radio

Harman is not currently a member of CCC and is aggressively pushing its Aha Radio connectivity application with what company executives call a “small licensing fee.”  In other words, Harman is seeking to push Aha Radio into any platform it is currently engaged in or bidding on.

A worthwhile side note on this interface struggle is the central role now being played by Pandora.  Pandora is a special case because it is a standalone application requiring its own unique software code and with a business model that does not allow subsidies or revenue sharing.  Ford was first to enable voice access to on-device and streaming content including, last year, voice access to most Pandora functions such as skip, thumbs up/down and channel selection.  Ford's interface remains unique in this respect.

BMW was next to enable Pandora smartphone integration, but has not enabled voice integration, preferring to use its physical i-Drive controllers.  Mercedes has also enabled Pandora access.  GM has now arrived with MyLink – shipping later this year – with voice integration and touch screen control, like Ford.

Pandora is not part of Harman's Aha Radio application portfolio, possibly because Aha Radio is ultimately intended to be an advertising platform with revenue sharing.  That prospect rules out inclusion of Pandora whose licensing forbids revenue sharing.

Each of these OEMs has taken a different approach to representing apps on an in-dash display.  Not one of these companies, though, has chosen to reproduce the handset HMI.  At the same time, though, each of these OEMs is known to be investing heavily to enable their individual app experiences a cost burden Terminal Mode is intended to alleviate while also requiring some loss of control.

Implications

Terminal Mode may yet have its day in the dash(board).  The CCC consortium supporting Terminal Mode has ventured upon sacred ground for the automotive industry: dashboard HMI.  Car makers jealously protect this differentiating real estate.

It is fitting that the battle is playing out in Detroit which is ground zero for audio decision making worldwide.  It is also worth noting that Apple has guarded its HMI experience not unlike a car maker with enviable success.

The growing importance of wireless carriers and their knowledge of user interfaces may yet play a decisive role which may alter the current development trajectory.  Handset makers are also stepping forward with their own ideas and priorities.

With that in mind, we think the CCC faces steep obstacles in convincing car makers to surrender some control over HMI in the interest of cross-platform scalability and cost reduction.  It is an admirable effort and one that may lead to technical breakthroughs relevant in other application verticals such as V2V connectivity.  But when it comes to entertainment, communications and navigation, car makers may have too much at stake to play along.

Further Insight:

- : A Dark Horse in the Connectivity Race - Insight - Lanctot - Strategy Analytics

- Answers Call for Secure Service Delivery Platform - Lanctot - Insight - Strategy Analytics

- , , XM Vie for Automotive Subscribers - Lanctot - Insight - Strategy Analytics