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Welcome to Tech Tuesday, our new series that explains and exposes the high tech features in today’s new cars. For our inaugural post, we’re not just looking at what technology is in cars today; instead we’re looking ahead to the future of in-car infotainment systems.
Try almost any modern infotainment system. Most feel like they’re a decade behind today’s gadgets in terms of touch-screen responsiveness and resolution. So why don’t cars offer us technology on par with smartphones and tablets?
A company called QNX is hard at work answering that question and they invited us to their headquarters in Ontario, Canada for a preview of what’s to come.
Promising a slick, easy to use modern design and hardware plucked from today’s greatest devices, QNX’s idea is sound on paper.
You might not recognize the name QNX, but you certainly know its parent company: BlackBerry. Despite its obscurity at the consumer level, several auto manufacturers already use QNX technology. They include Toyota, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Acura and even General Motors.
Big Tech in Little Benz
Even with its strong ties to top automakers, QNX is still pressing to innovate, showcasing its latest developments in a Mercedes CLA 45 AMG. First seen at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, this car features a huge, high-resolution display, a powerful multi-core processor, a spiffy digital dash and all the apps to show off such impressive hardware.
With its custom matte grey vinyl wrap, this CLA 45 AMG can invoke stares and awe, but real gadget geeks will step inside and raise their eyebrows at the massive touchscreen that’s 22 inches across. Spanning most of the dashboard, the screen is bright and colorful with a main cluster of application shortcuts in the center, while pertinent information like temperature, song titles and the time of day are found off to the right.
Poke the screen and you’ll get an immediate reaction. This is iPhone-level response. It feels telepathic compared to what Ford or Infiniti offer today. The reaction of the screen allows for finger sliding and dragging gestures that will be totally intuitive to anyone accustomed to a smartphone. The system is also multi-modal and works with the standard rotary dial found in most Mercedes, giving users a more tactile approach to navigating its features.
Poke any of the five circular on-screen buttons and the system zooms into action. Actually, the animation is more of a slide. On the left side of the screen, nice and close to the driver, is a vertical line with three circular buttons stacked like a stoplight . These are the controls for the app – the top-most button is a “home” button of sorts, sending you back to the main screen with the app shortcuts. The middle button is a “back” button, sending you to the previous screen within the current app. The bottom button is a context sensitive settings button. The three-button setup is totally intuitive. This kind of straightforward simplicity is like a breath of fresh air. Who wants to read an instruction manual?
As this QNX car is a reference system used to show off new software and hardware to automakers, it features a long list of apps. For example, there are three navigation programs in order to showcase QNX’s flexibility with different software. All three rendered the maps quickly. While modern navigation systems tend to stutter while loading rich visuals, this didn’t look phased with the task at hand.
In fact, this chipset was released this year, compared to the unit from 2012 at work in the Tesla Model S. Even the brand new Audi A3 uses a chip from 2011, which is ancient history in the fast-paced world of technology.
Another great showcase of the cars huge screen comes with its media software. The display on the touch-screen is divided in half, with albums and song-listings on the left side, while the currently playing track sits on the right. Selecting a new song or album to play is simple thanks to the responsive touch screen.
The car also has Mirrorlink, a new feature that’s slowly being integrated into production cars and aftermarket head units. This system simulates your smartphone’s display on the main screen of the car to access apps without having to fiddle with your phone. We used a connected Sony smartphone to use the phone’s built-in Google Maps app on the cars display. This kind of connectivity could open up the whole dash to your smart-phone apps, but certain functions are supposed to be restricted to curb distracted driving. That means no Angry Birds or “selfies.”
Another cool app built into the car is a diagnostic screen that shows you details of what is happening under the hood. Statistics like tire-pressure, oil, gas and washer fluid levels are displayed with a clear and elegant looking design. This feature ties into the “connected car” aspect of the CLA. When paired to a smartphone, you can use an app to see these details remotely, making it possible to schedule an appointment with your dealer’s service department.
Connected cars also have the ability to utilize a mobile data connection, showing real-time information like gas prices, traffic status and movie show times.
The folks at QNX did more than just switch out the infotainment system – they also installed a crisp looking digital dash. This gorgeous display features quick access to weather, route and media information – and even shows incoming text message notifications.
Both Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles currently feature digital gauge clusters that use QNX software. We’ve already seen QNX’s idea of future digital clusters in the 2015 Audi TT, where the area directly in front of the driver is used as the primary display, rather than an auxiliary screen in the center of the dash.
Sounds Good, Naturally Speaking
Another element QNX was showing is its natural speech recognition. Similar to Apple’s Siri, the system doesn’t need you to remember a set of commands, simply saying something like “Find Starbucks” will set it into action. While people may still be hesitant to talk to their cars, natural voice recognition will help drivers get what they want out of their infotainment system quickly, with fewer mistakes .
When it comes to chatting, QNX also showcased software that enhances call quality. Sitting next to the CLA 45 AMG was a QNX modified Kia Soul that featured new audio technology dubbed wide band and full band stereo calling. Cell phone calls between the two cars were noticeably crisp and free of any static. Imagine a phone call in your car with the clarity of a Skype conversation and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how perfect a conversation in the car would sound.
Not Finished Yet
While the car on display at QNX is impressive, it’s important to lay out expectations of what we would see in a production car. Automakers will pick and choose the features they like out of this reference car. They will then modify and brand them to suit their needs. A car with all this ultra-high-end hardware may be too costly for an automaker to put in a production car, but the ideas found in the software are future-proof.
Featuring a responsive interface, natural voice recognition and support for apps, QNX’s next-generation thinking for infotainment systems will be a huge step forward for what’s in cars today.