You'd expect a $35,000 car to have technology at least as good as a $200 smartphone, but it often doesn't. Although the auto industry has been slow to keep up with tech trends, that may soon change.
As you pore over the technical features built into Ford's latest vehicles, one spec you'll notice in those that include a SYNC entertainment system is the 10GB hard drive for storing music.
No, they didn't drop a zero. That's a 10.
Ford isn't alone when it comes to offering skimpy hard drives. Most automobile companies are two to four years behind the consumer technology curve, according to industry experts.
So while you can buy a 1TB hard drive for your computer for less than $100, or get 16GB of flash storage on a basic iPhone for $200, don't expect that new car to match that kind of hardware anytime soon.
"The iPhone was introduced in 2007. The cars being sold in 2012 and 2013 were just being planned then," said Scott Fosgard, a spokesman for Infotainment systems at General Motors.
Fosgard said the automobile industry has been shell-shocked by the speed with which technology has permeated its ranks.
In 2007, for example, infotainment systems ranked 25th on GM customers' wish lists. Today, infotainment is fourth on the list, according to Fosgard.
A long product cycle
While mobile technology evolves in a world of rapid product cycles, the auto industry has a longer product cycle curve -- much longer, as in five to seven years.
In part, that's because auto design and manufacturing involves meeting a lengthy set of specifications that, once tested for reliability, generally don't change during production.
With the exception of high-end cars, such as those from Mercedes Benz and or the electric Tesla, most car manufacturers don't even allow owners to upgrade their car's hardware as it ages. Even simple infotainment system upgrades now offered by major manufacturers such as Ford and Chevrolet require owners to bring their cars into the dealership.
"Imagine if you had to go to Best Buy to upgrade the software on your phone?" said Thilo Koslowski, a distinguished analyst at Gartner.
While car companies say their manufacturing and test cycle places them about two years behind the consumer technology curve, Koslowski said it's really closer to four years.
"The industry is trying to figure out how to accelerate bringing technology into automobiles," Koslowski said.
Much of the tech lag time in the automobile industry has to do with self-imposed and government-required reliability standards. Consumer electronics have far lower standards when it comes to temperatures and shock resistance. Not only do car companies have to ensure the technology works, but tech manufacturers have to build to a stricter set of standards.
"Inside your vehicle, technology has to be able to live from 70 degrees centigrade to minus 40. Your phone and computers don't' have to meet those requirements," said Jim Buczkowski, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow and director of Electrical and Electronics Systems at Ford Research and Innovation.
"It does wind up costing us more to meet those specs, too," Buczkowski added.
For example, electronic circuitry in automobiles receive a special conformal coating material to protect it from moisture, dust, chemicals and temperature extremes.
Why can't we upgrade our cars?
But shouldn't consumers be allowed to upgrade their infotainment systems -- perhaps change out motherboards, hard drives or even wirelessly upgrade the software in them?
Kathy McMahon, lead engineer for radio systems on Chevrolet and Buick, said while its possible to enable modular infotainment systems, creating a standard for upgrading tech across so many models makes it difficult to execute.
For example, high-end cars tend to segregate pieces of an electronic communications system, such as rear camera views, stereo systems, clocks, pop-up vehicle warnings and in-car mobile phone services, while lower-end cars aggregate those amenities on one unit.
"When you buy a consumer electronic device, you know it will be expendable. It's going to be replaced in a timely manner. The reason you can't just upgrade like that in a car is that it's hooked to a $30,000 transportation device," McMahon said.
Over the next several years, however, manufacturers will begin allowing navigation systems and their map information to be upgraded via wireless connectivity, said Koslowski. Those upgrades may also extend to other features down the road.
For example, Chevy has announced that it will begin offering 4G LTE connectivity in its 2015 models, which go on sale in next year. That, said Fosgard, will be a watershed moment in the industry.
GM also announced at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show its Flexible App Framework. When rolled out later this year, it will allow software developers to access the company's APIs and create new functionality for the infotainment systems in GM vehicles.
"What I love about that is my car has the potential to be my [web] portal," Fosgard said. "We're starting to redefine what a car is. It's coming fast."
Mobile device add-ons
The other trend is toward allowing a driver to connect smartphones or tables to an infotainment system and allow it to feed the data in.
The cloud is also becoming more important in vehicle data access, either by leveraging your smart phone or using 3G wireless through an embedded antenna. For example, all vehicles that allow cellular connectivity can connect to Pandora streaming music service.
"That's going to really drive further trends in the auto industry where you'll probably see less and less hardware in the car, at least from a data storage perspective," Koslowski said. "Ford SYNC ... gives you access to the Amazon cloud to download your digital content directly to your car over your stereo."
And, while wireless will continue to permeate car tech, it's not a silver bullet. There are still far too many parts of the U.S. that don't have sufficient cellular coverage for every network, and -- not surprisingly -- leaving a driver stranded in an area with insufficient or bad data is something car companies try to avoid. So onboard data storage will continue to be a necessity.
Chevrolet's MyLink navigation system, for example, allows drivers to connect their compatible smartphone via Bluetooth. Once connected, drivers can stream audio, and make and answer phone calls.
Most automakers now at least offer USB ports that allow drivers to connect their mobile device or a portable hard drive so they can access personal content.
Oil change and an upgrade?
Another possibility that would allow vehicle upgrades over time is by building informatics systems that can be replaced during a car's lifetime. After a few years, an owner would simply pull the module out and stick in a new one, Koslowski said.
By building systems to be modular and upgradable, car manufacturers could breath new life into used or leased vehicles, Koslowski said. "If you can upgrade a returned leased vehicle, guess what? They can charge more money for them...," she said.
Buczkowski, however, sees that as a difficult proposition, at best.
"After market products do not have to meet the same specs or warranties that a car does," he said. "Electronics often have a 90-day or at most a 12-month warranty, and that's only covering workmanship.
"We still find that the vast majority of [customers] are very intolerant of anything that goes wrong in their car," Buczkowski said.
Even the move to add Bluetooth connectivity to their cars earned Ford criticism from some customers.
"On phones, Bluetooth is not all that rock solid. That's an area we suffer from. And, we get knocked by our customers because they want a rock-solid experience in their cars," Buczkowski said.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "Here's why new car tech is four years out of date" was originally published by Computerworld.