Why a hybrid approach is vital to future-proofing your in-car entertainment system

The pace of change in software development is incredibly fast, and it’s becoming increasingly complex. As cars become more software-focused, the need to update car software regularly will increase. It will become as natural as updating software on a smartphone. This need will be even more acute in in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) and in-car entertainment, which are growing in influence on purchasing decisions. In this blog, I’ll outline what this means in practice.

Evolution of in-car entertainment

The evolution of in-car entertainment is progressing rapidly, which is a new experience for automotive OEMs and Tier 1s. For decades, a fixed FM radio device was the only form of entertainment they needed to install. Then cassette players came to the fore, and they lasted a decade or so before CD players, then DAB radio became commonplace. All these examples required installation of the relevant piece hardware when the car was manufactured, but after that, OEMs and Tier 1s didn’t need to do anything – there were no updates required once the car left the production line.

But now we’re in a connected world which brings great opportunities for services, but also some threats that were not a concern before. The priority is streaming audio, with video waiting in the wings to take centre stage when every car comes with one or more multi-use screens.

The car lifecycle clashes with connected services

Meanwhile, operating systems have been through their own evolution and at a much faster pace than in-car entertainment. From Windows CE and QNX, to Linux and now Android (with fragmented variants based on AOSP, the open-source variant that OEMs can take, adapt and modify as they need). Streaming is becoming a key buying criterion for cars, with 63% of drivers rating in-car entertainment as one of the car’s most important features, according to The PwC Digital Auto Report in 2020. For OEMs and Tier 1s to meet this demand, automotive and software development timelines need to come together.

But car development is very slow, especially when compared to software and streaming services. For example, take the projected lifecycle of an electric vehicle (EV). Batteries are expected to last around 7 years once the car hits the road. However, the development phase of the vehicle typically takes 2-3 years before that. So, OEMs are preparing cars today that will be on the road in 10 years’ time. This is a long time in the world of connected services, and the software and content landscape could look completely different by then.

To put this in perspective, 10 years ago, you probably hadn’t heard of Spotify – and Android was at version 3 – or Honeycomb – with API level 9. September 2020 saw the release of Android 11with API level 30! 10 years from now, Spotify may not be the dominant audio streaming service it is today. OEMs need to plan for this type of scenario now and ensure they can support the next great content app that comes along.

Hedging your bets with a hybrid approach

A hybrid approach is the most sensible route to take as cars enter the connected world. There are simply too many unknowns for OEMs to place their eggs in one basket now. We don’t know what the future of in-car screens and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) use will be like. Today, broadcast content (including data) from DAB radio, and even FM radio depending on coverage, is still the main consumed content in-car. Mobile coverage varies drastically, so OEMs must be able to smoothly switch from one to another when needed. And mirroring from mobile devices must be supported as car users transition to connected cars via their smartphones and then embedded apps. Car users are moving to connected services at different paces, so OEMs must support them wherever they are on their journey.

Security is another crucial factor for OEMs to consider, especially as the car is now connected to the outside world. If mobile and connected TV worlds are anything to go by, then regular software updates will be become the norm – and possibly even more frequent due to the additional personal safety concerns within a vehicle. OEMs must have the flexibility to support regular updates, whatever the circumstances.

Leave content to the experts

It doesn’t make sense for OEMs to take on the mantle of managing relationships with rights-holders and navigating multiple complex rights deals themselves when it comes to content services. Instead, they should really use an aggregator to do it for them. There are several reasons for this, not least that rights deals are short-term affairs compared to the lifespan of a car. Also, content delivery is incredibly complicated, with new frontiers for OEMs like content protection (digital rights management, or DRM). Put simply, OEMs will find it far easier and quicker to get to market if they lean on experts for support – in the same way that OEMs have relied on their tier 1 partners to deliver functional components for their vehicles rather than sourcing themselves. User data and customer insight will become much more important – as OEMs have a longer relationship with cars, they should want to have control of this rather than ceding to a third-party platform that may have another agenda.

Another big factor to consider is the screen resolution and aspect ratio, and cars are some way off reaching a standardised approach like TV (and it’s highly unlikely they will). Here’s a breakdown of the main issues that OEMs face:

  • The nuances of cars will complicate app support: Different screen sizes and aspect ratios are all the rage in automotive but are unsuitable for supporting video streaming (some wide screens are more akin to a digital billboard beside a sports match than a TV).
  • Keeping up with software devices across multiple devices is tough: Even in the world of TV, with standardisation on 16:9 aspect ratios, premium content providers have their work cut out.
  • App developers will not be keen on supporting multiple screen sizes and ratios: Picture the scene – a testing room full of VW head units, then another for Mercedes, another for BMW etc.
  • Video streaming experience innovations are evolving all the time: There are ample opportunities to keep viewers engaged, e.g., adding more sports stats alongside the main broadcast or allowing voting on talent shows. Of course, when such functionality hits our TV screens, there will be a demand to carry it through to the car. But this will only be possible if app developers are willing and able to do it (i.e., they need the process of updating apps to be as straightforward as possible).

As OEMs prepare for the era of the connected car to kick into gear, it’s important to remember how quickly software – and essential components like operating systems and browsers – and content services evolve in the modern world. Compared to the pace of car rollouts, it will be like stepping onto a Maglev after a light stroll. Those that are best placed to succeed are taking a hybrid approach, and many new revenue opportunities will come their way through the agile ability to quickly support new and existing connected services as a result.

About the author:

Robert is a Global Product Director at ACCESS Europe GmbH, with a focus on HTML5 platforms and media sharing solutions, including industry specific extensions such as HbbTV and W3C Vehicle APIs, so that ACCESS customers can deploy standards based state of the art products. He has been involved in projects with major customers in both automotive and TV and ensures a customer focused development strategy for ACCESS. His role involves working with telcos, middleware suppliers, STB OEMS, automotive tier 1s and automotive OEMS to ensure that ACCESS products deliver the features needed in these fast evolving markets. Follow him on Twitter / Linkedin