It’s amazing how far entertainment systems have come. We’ve gone from pure radios, to tiny little screens in huge wooden boxes with tiny black and white images, to full on colour displays and now even curved screens that offer excellent views for anyone across the room. Sound systems have also evolved to increase the level of immersion, and connectivity is through the roof – you almost don’t need a traditional TV box anymore because a lot of media is available online.
That same evolution is true for cars. There was once a time when even having a radio in a car was considered a pretty big deal – at least in the 60s and 70s. As media formats evolved from cassettes to discs, we began to see multiple tape and CD decks occupying space in the glove box or trunk – a true mark of luxury if your car were to come equipped with it. This carried on well into the 1990s and early 2000s - until, of course, solid media started going out of style.
Even things like navigation have grown leaps and bounds. Primitive gyroscope based systems have been around since the 1980s with Honda’s inertial navigation system as well as Toyota’s colour display. By 1990, Mazda introduced a proper GPS-based navigation system and ever since it has featured in a variety of cars – even down to mass market models today. GPS systems are so integrated that they can even interact with on-board cruise control systems as well as the transmission for the right kind of gear selection.
But of all the things to truly make a shift, who would have thought it would be our mobile phones? USB drives and SD cards loaded with MP3s made an appearance for a couple of years through the early 2010s, but the biggest shift would be the introduction of Bluetooth connectivity. Not only did it allow you to make and receive calls hands-free, it also allowed some form of audio streaming so you could play music directly off your phone.
And as phones became more and more complex with features and functionality, in-car entertainment systems evolved to match. The mobile phone went from being something purely for sending and receiving messages and calls, to miniature personal computers that occupied a great deal of our daily lives. It was only natural for car-makers to start developing ways to better integrate our phones with our cars.
As we moved towards big screens for our infotainment systems, it was the prime environment to develop a sort of tethering system that would basically mirror our phones on the car’s screens. With systems like Android Auto, Apple Car Play and Mirrorlink, that’s basically what carmakers did – and in most cases, the integration is seamless.
Nowadays we don’t even see cars needing on-board navigation systems when we rely on Waze or Google Maps on our phone for better, more detailed directions and information. In that sense the burden has been taken off car manufacturers as maps don’t need to be updated as regularly, but the next challenge introduced is ensuring that infotainment systems have the right up-to-date protocols to match smart devices.
But now that we’re here, what’s next? Well, natural language voice control is on the rise – MBUX being one of the most outstanding options we’ve seen that has both an amazing UI, and is amazingly easy to use. These systems do need a solid cellular data package though – and many luxury cars are now offered with sim cards pre-installed on a package through the course of ownership.
The future then, it seems, is headed in the opposite direction from smart device connectivity and integration – because car manufacturers are simply circumventing this with the aforementioned cellular data packages. With over-the-air updates, infotainment systems can stay relevant without exposing the car to possible routes of entry for hackers, or having to deal with update after update from smart device manufacturers.
The small details are things like gesture control or augmented reality systems, but really it’s the broad strokes that matter – and as cars evolve from being possessions to functioning as a service, so too will the on-board systems change. In a world of driverless cars, we might even find a convergence between our home entertainment systems and those in our cars – only time will tell.