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Plug into a smarter car

The cars on our radar now are smarter than ever before. And the smartphone companies are driving the change

Modern technology and connectivity mean that the occupants of such a car will have better entertainment options, as well as safety features.
Modern technology and connectivity mean that the occupants of such a car will have better entertainment options, as well as safety features.

Cars today aren’t just about driving from points A to B, they are also about convenience, entertainment and security. If tail fins and chrome defined the automobile in the late 1950s and the “muscle-car" was the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, we are now cruising into what is appropriately being called the “connected car" era, with Silicon Valley stars making their presence felt in what used to be Detroit territory.

Modern technology and connectivity mean that the occupants of such a car will have better entertainment options, as well as safety features—buzzing a helpline automatically in case of an accident, for example. Then there is the real-time management system, providing updated traffic information, optimal route navigation and information on the car’s health, all aimed at making the drive safer, faster and more efficient.

Do you scoff at the idea of a connected car? Well, according to navigation company TomTom, drivers in Moscow spend an average of 127 hours each year stuck in traffic—Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok or New Delhi wouldn’t be very different. Moscow isn’t perceived as a city with bad traffic, but data suggests it is. This is where cloud-based data and smart algorithms become relevant, be it for navigation, communication, safety or security.

The change is upon us

So, what are the elements of a modern-day connected vehicle? Take the example of Swedish carmaker Volvo. Its Volvo On Call app (Android and iOS) hosts a bunch of cloud-based services that allow you to remotely control some of the functions with your phone or smartwatch. You can locate the car, send navigation directions, unlock doors, monitor fuel, pre-manage the cabin’s temperature, make a Wi-Fi zone, even call for emergency assistance. A truly connected smart car will have a processing unit, a bevy of sensors, storage and smart software to run all the features—think of your car as your laptop, only many times more powerful.

“Integration of connected devices to avoid distracted driving is the key. Infotainment is no longer limited to audio and video systems in the car. Seamless intelligence transcending devices (these work together as well), including sensors, cameras, tablets, smartphones, navigation system and infotainment systems, is imperative," says Tom von Bonsdorff, managing director, Volvo Auto India.

Infotainment: The driving soundtrack

Over the years, perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the factory-fitted music system. For, unless you have splurged on a Jaguar XE sedan, for instance, with the InControl Touch and Meridian music systems, the experience would rank somewhere between clunky and exasperating. Now, tech giants Apple and Google want to put your smartphone at the very centre of the experience. With their CarPlay and Android Auto systems, respectively, they seamlessly integrate hands-free calling features, music streaming, maps, navigation and more, all with voice commands. It becomes easy for the person driving to make or receive calls, change the music or even use navigation guidance, all without the driver needing to take their eyes off the road.

In 2015, Maruti Suzuki was the first to introduce Apple CarPlay in India as part of the SmartPlay infotainment platform, which is now available in their Baleno hatchback, Ciaz sedan and Brezza crossover, among others. The platform has now also been updated to add support for Android Auto, which is being rolled out with the Ignis hatchback. “The major risk associated with Apple CarPlay was the acceptability of the feature by Indian car consumers. The feature can be best experienced with good Internet speed, which is a major challenge in the Indian context," says C.V. Raman, executive director (engineering), Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. It took time for rival carmakers to take the hint, but the likes of Hyundai, for example, have joined the party, with the new Elantra sedan, and also the 2017 Elite i20 hatchback and the 2017 Creta crossover.

If you aren’t buying a new car anytime soon, Pioneer Electronics is selling a range of in-car entertainment after-market options that can be installed in your existing vehicle—the AVH-X8890BT (Rs39,990), AVIC-F70BT (Rs49,990) and AVIC-F80BT (Rs51,990) are some systems that support both CarPlay and Android Auto. Sony offers the XAV-AX100 (Rs26,990) infotainment system, with similar capabilities for supporting your smartphone.

Both Apple and Google are working on updates to further improve in-car infotainment experience. In fact, the latest iOS 10.3 software now rolling out for the iPhone tweaks the interface and improves ease of use of apps such as Apple Music and Maps.

Safety and maintenance: The value additions

Smart features aren’t only about entertainment. Ford’s Sync system, for instance, can automatically call the emergency helpline with location coordinates. The new Ford Endeavour has advanced sensors that can semi-automatically park the mammoth vehicle for you. Honda as well as Mahindra and Mahindra now offer apps that connect your phone with your car and send you a treasure trove of information.

If you happen to own a Honda car (City, Amaze and Jazz included), the Connect (Rs7,999) plugs into the car’s on-board diagnostics port, and pairs with your iPhone or Android phone. What you get is access to vehicle data, including engine and battery health, ability to locate the vehicle, analyse driving quality, service reminders, even call the helpline in case of an accident.

“Cars are increasingly taking the place of a second home and we believe that customers are progressing rapidly. They are looking forward to entertainment and convenience as an option easily made available," says Guillaume Sicard, president, Nissan India operations.

Big business

Tech companies understand the market potential. Research firm McKinsey and Co. suggests that the global market for connectivity components and services will reach €170 billion (around Rs11.8 trillion) by 2020, up from just €30 billion in 2014.

Research firm PwC suggests that worldwide sales of connected-car products will increase almost fourfold by 2020 and will be worth $149 billion (around Rs9.7 trillion) for the passenger cars that you and I will probably buy. In October, chipmaker Qualcomm said it would acquire semiconductor manufacturer NXP and its portfolio of automotive micro controllers for a total enterprise value of approximately $47 billion, which makes Qualcomm the world’s largest automotive chipmaker.

Security fears

There is just one catch: genuine fears about connected car security. In February, security firm Kaspersky Labs’ report suggested that what you do with your phone too has a huge bearing on your connected car’s security. One fear is that malicious users may find a vulnerability that would allow them to obtain access to the server that sends the data to the car’s on-board system.

So you should not install unverified apps on your phone, and avoid unauthorized software tweaks (such as “rooting" an Android phone) that will alter the built-in security mechanisms.


Cars for the geeks

You don’t need to get into the luxury brand territory to own a car that has a reasonable tech quotient. The more affordable hatchbacks and sedans are now smarter than ever before

Maruti Suzuki Ignis

Maruti Suzuki Ignis

Rs4.59 lakh onwards (ex-showroom, Delhi)

This hatchback is the first in its segment to offer CarPlay and Android Auto, making it a breeze to stream music, navigate, and more. It doesn’t fall short on safety either, with dual airbags, an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD).

Mahindra XUV500

Mahindra XUV500

Rs12,46,631 onwards (ex-showroom, Delhi)

With the Blue Sense app (Android and iOS), you can control media as well as air conditioning and access data such as fuel mileage. The tyre pressure monitoring system will alert you if there are abnormal temperature changes or when leakage is detected.

Honda WR-V/Honda City

Honda WR-V/Honda City

Rs7.75 lakh onwards/Rs8,49,990 onwards (ex-showroom, Delhi)

Honda’s new DigiPad infotainment system offers voice commands for phone calls and media playback. It is perplexing that Honda didn’t think CarPlay and Android Auto were important enough. But it makes up for that with a navigation system that offers traffic updates, and a built-in Web browser.

Hyundai Elantra

Hyundai Elantra

Rs12.99 lakh onwards (ex-showroom, Delhi)

The Elantra now has CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as an 8-inch HD touchscreen. It also includes French audio brand Arkamys’ smart sound algorithms—they match the music genre and surroundings to improve clarity and minimize audio quality loss.

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