Connection Headaches: When will cars catch up?

Jul 29, 2008
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Connection Headaches: When will cars catch up?

How much praise does a manufacturer want for a aux-in socket?  Read through either the marketing for a new car, or a car review, and there's generally an unusually large amount of interest heaped on the stereo having an input for your PMP.  Contrast that, say, with one of our own reviews - a notebook, perhaps, or a cellphone - where the progress from one generation of devices to the next is often surprising; why are the car manufacturers so slow to catch up?

The old argument was product life-cycles and development time: that it took 5-7 years for a new car to be conceived, designed and enter production, and any innovative functions added into that ran the risk of being outdated by the time the vehicle reached the showrooms.  Yet if we peal back the sheet metal today, underneath it's an organised riot of platform sharing.  Your Audi TT is built from the same basic blocks as your neighbour's VW Golf, and the humble Skoda you might rent as a holiday car abroad has the same DNA as well.  Engines, too, are spread between brands and ranges, not to mention switchgear and other in-cabin hardware.

Prototyping and design is taking less time, with 3D modelling replacing physical mock-ups, and the gestation period for a new car has shrunk down considerably from the old seven years.  So why has in-car connectivity not followed?  Yes, there have been attempts to computerize the car's electronics - Ford has its Sync system by Microsoft, and the Seattle company also works with Fiat and, come 2010, Hyundai - but they're the exception not the rule (and usually a $300+ option to boot).  The higher reaches of the BMW and Mercedes ranges have high-powered PCs behind their comprehensive electronics, but there's no way to connect to them beyond plugging in an iPod or pairing up a Bluetooth phone for hands-free use.

Considering a car could very well be the second biggest purchase you make after your home, is it too much to ask for a few USB sockets?  I want to be able to plug in an Eee and use it as a rear-seat display, or add an SSD full of music without having to bin the manufacturer's stereo and replace it with a flashy aftermarket unit.  I'm not asking for full integration - I'd like the comfort of knowing I wasn't going to wipe the engine ECU when I empty the Recycle Bin - but I would like the same standards (USB, ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth) that have become mainstays in the computing world for years now.

In the meantime, I'll follow the DIY carPC builds with interest and I'll continue to get vaguely excited about aftermarket stereos that promise the world.  Considering the interest both niches generate, I don't think it's only me who wants more of the functionality they offer "out of the box".  Hopefully it'll take a little less than 5-7 years before the car manufacturers wake up to that too.


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