We're in a golden age of technology, right now. Whether it's smartphones, tablets, ultrabooks or retina displays, the rate of innovation is bonkers going on explosive. But what about in-car tech?
Historically, cars have lagged horribly behind other products and devices with digital systems. Awful sat navs without postcode support, dog-slow internet connections (if an internet connection is even present), punitive pricing for second-rate features – all of these remain common, even in new cars.
But the good news is that the car industry is finally beginning to wake up. And that's why TechRadar has decided to help you through what looks like being the most exciting and innovative period in the history of car technology.
It all starts with the simple fact that buyers' expectations of in-car kit is increasingly being driven by the capabilities of their personal digital devices. Until very recently, it felt like your average free-with-contract smartphone had 10 times the features and functionality of even the best in-car systems. Why shouldn't a car costing £20,000, £30,000, even £40,000 or more be every bit as good?
Indeed, you might think the huge list prices of cars makes the inclusion of top-notch tech a mere formality. In practice – and in fairness to car manufacturers – it's not as simple as that. Car development is an incredibly expensive, complex and lengthy process. The lead times make technological lag in some areas absolutely inevitable.
There are also issues to overcome when it comes to safety, reliability and validation. As in-car tech becomes more complex, driver distraction is turning into a major issue. Likewise, cars are expected to last for much longer than smartphones, with most users of the latter on 12 month to two-year renewal contracts in the UK.
With all that in mind, in-car features have to be safe, robust and carefully validated for use. It's also a big ask for manufacturers of cars to become experts in a brand new field. We're talking here about human-machine interfaces.
To be brutally honest, there are vanishingly few of these you'd call truly excellent on any device. Apple has come up with one that has essentially formed the basis of the burgeoning smartphone and tablet industry. And, well, that's about it.
So the big question for car makers is whether they try to reinvent the wheel or let third-party specialists pick up the slack.
In reality, it may be a bit of both. Flying the flag for full-feature systems are the likes of Audi MMI, BMW iDrive, Mercedes COMAND, Mini Connected and others. But even those platforms are increasingly looking to offload some of the work onto smartphones and tablets.
At the other end of the scale, there are car makers integrating third-party devices and enabling them to take over most, if not all, of the infotainment duties, such as the Navigon device in the latest small VWs and Skodas.
Then there's Renault's bold move in basing its upcoming R-Link in-car platform on Android. Could that be a game-changer? It's going to take a few years for it all to shake out. All we know for sure is that it makes a lot of sense to use smartphones to provide at least some apps and features. After all, people tend to upgrade smartphones much more frequently.
So, the next few years in car tech are going to be absolutely manic. May we therefore suggest you tune in to TechRadar's new car tech channel, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
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