Nearly 99% of new vehicles sold in the US this year have a digital display screen and while the interface and software on that screen vary greatly among models, infotainment systems have undoubtedly become a critical consideration for car buyers. After all, those systems run all of the communication and entertainment functions of a car and can be the difference between an annoying driving distraction and an enjoyable journey.
We sat down with Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst with Guidehouse Insights, in a recent Facebook Live interview to discuss the multitude of options available to consumers, to help steer you in the right direction.
What’s an Infotainment System?
“So, infotainment is something that has evolved dramatically over the last several decades,” Abuelsamid said. “The word is actually a comparatively new one. It’s basically a combination of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’. The first car I remember my dad having was a ’73 Dodge Dart and the infotainment system consisted of an AM radio with some push-button presets and one speaker in the dashboard.”
Abuelsamid goes on to explain that “What we have today is something way more complex and that both provides a lot of options for . . . drivers, but also a lot of potential risks because of the way you have to interact with them.” He noted that the infotainment systems we have today do things like controlling your media: radios, audio streaming, and even video streaming may be available. But it also provides systems like GPS navigation, climate control, and more.
Which User Interface is Right for You?
Most vehicles today come with at least one – and frequently multiple – screens in them. At the very least, in any new vehicle, you will find a screen in or at the top of the center console. In most cases, it will be a touchscreen interface, though you may encounter other types of controls and combinations.
In addition to the center screen, there may be an LCD digital gauge cluster in front of the driver as well as additional screens for the passengers. Abuelsamid points out that when there is an extra screen in front of the front passenger seat, it will usually have some sort of film over the screen that allows the passenger to watch videos, play games, etc. without distracting the driver.
About Those Touchscreens…
Most manufacturers have moved away from physical controls toward touchscreen infotainment systems because that’s what people have come to expect thanks to phones, laptops, and tablets. However, in Abuelsamid’s opinion, a touchscreen is not the best user interface in the car. Consumers are used to the functionality you get from a touchscreen, but they tend to demand a lot of your attention in order to change settings while you’re driving.
There aren’t many left, but systems with a controller, knobs, and/or buttons are safer because they allow you to make your selections while mostly keeping your eyes on the road. Mazda, BMW, Mercedes, and Audi are known for employing these types of controls. Lexus and Acura have tried using touchpads like you’d find on most laptops with varying success.
Your Infotainment System Shouldn’t Be a Distraction
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), distracted driving causes around 3,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. That’s close to 9% of all accidents.
As mentioned, Abuelsamid is a fan of physical controls – especially for things you will be using frequently like volume and temperature controls. It’s easier to find and utilize these controls with muscle memory. He notes, “with a touchscreen, you don’t have any feeling from it. You don’t get any feedback from it, so you actually have to look at the screen to hit the right point.”
Abuelsamid recommends that if you’re going to go with a touchscreen interface in your infotainment system, “I think you need to have a combination of physical and touch controls . . . For things that you’re going to put in the touchscreen, you want to minimize the amount of stuff that’s there. You don’t want to be drilling down through menus and you want large touch targets.”
“Pretty much every modern vehicle also has voice recognition,” Abuelsamid says. Voice recognition systems have the potential to allow you to control things while keeping your eyes on the road, where they belong.
Early voice systems in cars were not very good. Cars are a challenging place to implement voice control because of all the ambient noise: wind, road noise, radio, etc. Abuelsamid points out that “traditionally, we didn’t have very much computing performance in the car and so these systems tended to have very limited vocabularies. There were very specific commands you had to remember because if you limited the number of commands, there was a greater chance for that system to correctly recognize the command and do it – as long as you remembered what the command was.”
Newer vehicles have hybrid systems with one component embedded in the car and an additional cloud component built-in. That means that in addition to your phone’s connection, which will likely be powering your Google Maps navigation etc., your vehicle will have its own backup connection to the cloud that it can utilize when/if your phone loses signal. That cloud connectivity also stores additional voice recognition information, making the system more effective at understanding and fulfilling your commands.
Driving On the Cloud
GM was the first automaker to make cars with cellular modems commonplace with the introduction of OnStar in the mid-1990s. Today, almost every vehicle has some sort of wireless cellular capability and they’re even building in more advanced smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa voice system and Google’s Android Automotive. “Your car can basically be a rolling Amazon Echo device,” Abuelsamid said.
This new technology gives you the same streaming capabilities you experience at home, right there in your vehicle. Music, podcasts, even Netflix and other video streaming is available in some vehicles. Abuelsamid notes, “this can be particularly useful if you own an EV and you’re sitting there at a charger for half an hour, forty minutes waiting for it to charge. You sit back and catch up on your Netflix queue.” He continues, “For example, Jeep now has a partnership with Alexa – they’ve built Amazon Fire TV into their infotainment system…”
Another benefit of this cloud computing is that it allows the system to cache data like map information when you enter a dead zone and no longer have access to the cell service that was giving you directions. The system stores a certain amount of that data to keep you rolling until you have service again.
Cloud Connectivity vs Smartphone Projection
While connectivity has been built into cars for around 25 years, over the last 15 years or so, the proliferation of smartphones has further changed this dynamic. Now, automakers give you the ability to bypass the vehicle’s built-in platform and project a version of your phone’s operating system in the infotainment system itself.
That means that with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, you can project many of your phone’s apps – including navigation, Spotify, podcasts, etc. – on your vehicle’s display and control it through the car. Abuelsamid explains, “…so you don’t have to touch the phone anymore, you’re doing it either through the touchscreen or through voice . . . and when you hit the voice button on your steering wheel . . . it can actually trigger either Siri or Android or Google Assistant directly and you can tell it to play your favorite podcast…” It’s important to note that running the apps on your phone will mean using your phone’s data plan.
The lines are beginning to blur when it comes to the user experience. Abuelsamid points out that many automakers are “switching to using Android as the basic operating system for the vehicle itself. . . In most of these cases, they’re using Google Automotive Services embedded right in the infotainment system.” This system allows you to access the same Google services, apps, and profiles you use on your phone, tablets, etc. without having to actually connect your phone.
If you’re having trouble keeping these names straight, you’re not alone. Google’s branding is particularly confusing. Android Automotive is the operating system they build directly into vehicle infotainment systems. Android Auto is the projection system that relies on your phone.
If you’re worried about not being able to use your iPhone with the built-in Android Automotive system, don’t be. Almost any new vehicle you buy today will have support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – so you can, at the very least, plug your phone in and go. Amazon Alexa voice services are a bit less common.
When it comes to preferences, Abuelsamid says that all of these systems work very similarly. There are some visual differences, but they function basically the same way and you should expect that whichever phone you happen to use will match up with the infotainment system well.
Then, There’s Telsa…
“Tesla is the main exception that doesn’t support Android Auto or CarPlay, or anything else. They have a few apps built into their system and whatever they’ve built-in, that’s what you get . . . so there’s no smartphone projection,” Abuelsamid says. “They have support for a couple of music streaming apps that they’ve built-in, but if what they have isn’t what you like to use then you should probably look elsewhere.”
How Will All of This Connectivity Affect My EV?
Abuelsamid wants you to know that all of this connectivity is actually particularly useful for electric vehicles. Systems like OnStar and Hyundai’s Blue Link already give you access to a wealth of information on your internal combustion car, but in an EV they allow you to do even more. He explains that with these systems you can use the manufacturer’s app to check your state of charge (or your fuel level) and even control when your car charges. He explains, “if your local utility goes to off-peak hours at say 9:30 – tell it to start charging your car at 9:35 . . . so you’re paying less to charge your car.”
There are all sorts of advantages of having this kind of direct control over your vehicle’s systems in the palm of your hand to allow you to save money, boost efficiency, identify mechanical problems, and even contact emergency services.
Take Advantage of Telematics
Every manufacturer has its own telematics system (the branded connectivity we’ve mentioned above): GM has OnStar, Hyundai has Blue Link, etc. When you buy a new car, you’ll often get a free trial of their subscription service that provides ready access to emergency services and other capabilities. One example Abuelsamid gives is the ability to keep track of your teenage driver by setting up a geo-fence that will give you an alert if your kiddo decides to take a joy ride out of town. These services cost money, but they can be a great source of peace of mind.
How to Choose
Connectivity is not likely to be a problem in any new vehicle. Whatever phone you have will almost certainly connect to your vehicle in some way and offer the same general capability you would expect. The most important thing you need to do is drive the car and make sure that everything works for you. Abuelsamid says to see if you can figure out how to do simple things like changing the radio station or pulling up your favorite podcast app without using the manual. “Try doing the things that you would normally do and see how hard it is to do it.”
According to Abuelsamid, “One thing to really be wary of is if you wear sunglasses (especially polarized sunglasses), you know, not every display is the same technology, and they don’t all have the same quality levels.” He recommends that you pay close attention to how well you can see the screen from different positions without glare. The more information that is built into a touchscreen display, the more important it will be for you to easily access that information.
Abuelsamid’s favorite systems on the market right now are those provided by Hyundai, Genesis, and Kia. He says, “They have a nice simple-to-use interface.” He notes that many of them do have touchscreens, but that the screen is lower and closer to the driver where it’s easier to reach. Abuelsamid notes, “one of the things you’ll see on a lot of modern cars is they do put that screen up on top of the dash, and the reason why they do that is . . . it’s not as far from your line of sight…”
He also says that the new Android Automotive system in GM vehicles is “really good” and that Stellantis’ (Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Fiat) Uconnect is simple to use and responsive. Abuelsamid notes that while Toyota and Nissan had particularly bad screens in the past, their newer models have much better screens in them, so that is something to be aware of if you’re shopping for a pre-owned model.
The last bit of advice Sam Abuelsamid offers to buyers like you is to “be wary of any system that ever tries to put everything into touch controls . . . especially things like your temperature controls, your turn signals, your wiper controls – those should be physical controls that you can do at a glance without really thinking about them.”
If you’re looking for more great advice from Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst with Guidehouse Insights, he hosts the Wheel Bearings podcast where he addresses the most interesting automotive stories of the week, reviews cars, and more.
Now that you know what to look for, start your search for the BestRide to “infotain” you and your family.