The challenges auto-makers face in building in-car navigation

Bradley Walker
New York City 40°42'52" N, 74°00'26” W

Consumers want intuitive, connected, future-proof navigation systems in their cars. Auto manufacturers want to provide solutions, but there are challenges to be overcome.

When you think of using an interactive digital map in a car, what image forms in your mind? Do you see a fluid, colorful, intuitive interface living in the dashboard? Or, do you see a smartphone plugged into the accessory power port? Perhaps a combination of both?

Over the years, a great technological divide has opened. On one side are the Embedded Navigation Systems (ENS) that drivers find in the dashboard of modern vehicles. On the other side are the free map applications that come pre-loaded on most any modern smartphone. When placed side by side, why would any driver opt for a hand-held device over an integrated navigation system that is custom built for the vehicle?

If we’re being honest – several reasons. But the factors behind why users may opt to use their phones over embedded vehicle navigation (connectivity, ease of use, consistency of experience) are enough for a separate article. For today, we’ll focus on the outlook for auto manufacturers.


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In essence, car makers work along side consumer electronics manufacturers. But the competitive side of it is unbalanced by the two industries having entirely different design cycles.

When designing software for the head unit and the instrument cluster, engineers are often called upon to reengineer their navigation software in part, if not in full, with each model year. Additionally, the vehicles for which engineers are designing experiences may yet be 1-2 years from the production line. Adding cutting-edge technology to embedded navigation systems today may still render a slightly out-dated feel by the time the vehicle reaches a consumer.

Fun Fact: By comparison of timeline, it’s been reported that Steve Jobs added maps to the first iPhone a grand total of 3 weeks before the device was unveiled in 2007.

There is light at the end of this tunnel

The good news is that auto manufacturers can improve their position over the long term. If you wonder why that is, the answer is simple: it’s highly unlikely your smartphone will effectively utilize the wealth of data cars are able to generate.

Smartphones can call out navigation, and In-Vehicle-Infotainment (IVI) systems can even control a smartphone from the head unit via mirroring. But that is as deep as the integration is likely to get.

Systems designers for vehicles have the exclusive benefit of native access to the entire vehicle electronics ecosystem and the data it produces. The same system that provides navigation and guidance to the driver can also be used to support the vehicle’s Advanced Driver Assistant Systems (ADAS) like predictive cruise control as well as add to features such as windscreen integrated displays.

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A vehicle-integrated navigation solution also benefits from information about vehicle performance – like understanding driving performance and calculating fuel or battery consumption. This will become a key requirement in the coming market of electric vehicles, when the vehicle will need to have a perpetual understanding of the desired route, current driving mode, engine load, and distance to the nearest charging station.

There is still the question of connectivity. Vehicles lag behind smartphones in regard to easily accessing data services. However, the ability to connect to the internet, as well as the cloud networks of data and processing power they can offer, is on the rise. Driven by both consumer desire as well as government mandates for safety, more and more vehicles sold will come with native data connections.

Drivers may opt to use their smartphones because doing so is convenient. Auto-makers have the opportunity to eclipse that convenience by providing the integrated experiences and services that matter when driving around in a car. The use cases for such experience could include finding the lowest gas prices or parking rates within range, and in turn, paying for those same services directly, perhaps automatically, from the vehicle’s IVI.

As the technology available in our vehicles grows more and more advanced, the need for embedded solutions will only increase. As auto-makers find new approaches to delivering updates faster, the future for systems designers is getting brighter every day.

Download the ABI whitepaper to learn more.

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Topics: Automotive, Connected Cars, Editor's Picks, CES 2019, HERE at CES 2019

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