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Panasonic Abets Google's Auto Play

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 14, 2015

The auto industry is abuzz over Google’s plans to bring Android to automobile dashboards as a native operating system with all that that might imply or enable. This is not to be confused with Android Auto, the smartphone connection proposition shown by several car makers and suppliers at CES in Las Vegas last week. The next phase, for Google, is having its OS act as the native operating environment in the car.

Unlike Google, Blackberry has been playing the automotive OS game for a couple decades with its QNX real-time operating system. Suddenly the nifty black magic that QNX has been able to pull off – delivering an operating system capable of seamlessly keeping pace with consumer electronics trends and updates without requiring hardware changes – is beginning to get some appreciation – from Ford among a host of other car makers.

That old Blackberry black magic is highlighted in the Panasonic suite at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week. Not only is Panasonic showing early versions of Ford’s upcoming SYNC 3 head units using Blackberry’s OS, the company is also privately showing its car company customers and prospective customers an upgradable dashboard concept – along with a few other clever solutions and systems for hands-free app and smartphone integration including Aupeo!

Consumers readily understand software updates, which impact everything from smartphones to TVs to PCs. Hardware updates are usually only associated with desktop or notebook computers.

Many owners of Apple iPhones, though, were forced by the latest iOS update to delete some of their apps to make room for the update. This is precisely the challenge facing car makers interested in implementing Android as the native automotive OS. Only in the case of Android, the issue is more severe.

Keeping pace with Android updates and upgrades usually or eventually means getting an entirely new device, because the old device is incapable of supporting the processing or storage demands of the new Android version.

Android knows no bounds.

The significance of the upgradable Panasonic system is that it will allow customers to upgrade and replace the more fungible elements of the car stereo system in a single dock-able module with a proprietary hardware interface. This is precisely what adopting Android in cars will require.

Panasonic, though, is not spinning the modular update as an Android in the dashboard story. Panasonic’s official statement:

“Today’s consumers are expecting constant upgradability – something they’ve been taught based on upgrading their consumer electronics. Their expectation is that this functionality is available across all their electronics, including their vehicles. This is a growing challenge for auto manufacturers due to the different lifecycles of consumer products, specifically smartphones and vehicles. Panasonic has realized this problem, and has created a future-proofing solution that offers more.

“Panasonic Automotive is not yet releasing details on its modular embedded concept. However, this consumer-driven technology is being developed as a removable, upgradable system so consumers can update to the very latest software and hardware. This not only expands the user experience through software, but, with upgradable hardware, it becomes easy to support any future technologies and devices brought into the vehicle – a differentiator for the Panasonic system.”

Panasonic is not disclosing details regarding the modular concept, but its content could include the Bluetooth, USB and Wi-Fi elements involved in connecting to the driver’s smartphone along with the storage, processor, media support and maybe even the embedded OnStar-like wireless connection. The Panasonic demonstration in Detroit follows public and private announcements from nVidia and Qualcomm at CES regarding their plans to encourage and enable upgradability in their automotive offerings.

Automotive announcements at CES were full of new firmware over-the-air update propositions – a recognition of the explosive proliferation of automotive software for everything from safety systems to infotainment. But hardware updating is something new, different and challenging.

Software updates provide a means to preserve or enhance vehicle value after the sale of the car and can include everything from new apps or map updates to modifications for safety system and airbag algorithms. Software updates can be brought to the car by the dealer, a customer’s smartphone, an in-dash USB port, Wi-Fi or via a high-speed data port connection.

Software updates are normally free and are provided as either a customer service or as a necessary means to preserve the functionality of on-board systems. Hardware updates, meanwhile, are generally not available due to the logistical challenge and cost. If the customer needs or wants a hardware upgrade, it’s normally either time to get a new car or find an independent installer to replace the existing system.

Panasonic is suggesting the creation of an aftermarket for hardware updates intended to keep automotive hardware fresh and up-to-date throughout the 11-year+ life of the vehicle. But car makers never had to seriously contemplate this prospect while using Blackberry’s QNX OS or even Linux. But the arrival of Android has introduced the need.

Hardware updates will be necessary to support new versions of Android. It is no coincidence that CloudCar, an Android advocate within the supplier community, has itself shown a GPU upgrade solution. CloudCar has yet to find any takers for its nVidia-based vision for auto system upgrades.

Another supplier, Cybercom, has proposed its “Infotainment-on-a-stick” concept modeled after Google’s Chromecast HDMI plug-in device. So far, the Cybercom initiative remains only a concept.

Does this mean we will bring our cars in to dealers in the future for freshening up of the hardware? Or does it mean that we will be able to upgrade a car with low-end infotainment performance to turbo-tainment a year or two after the original purchase? Does it mean that the entire infotainment package can and will be sold separately? Is hardware upgradability a precursor to Android’s entry into dashboard systems? The answers to these questions reside in the minds of car makers visiting Panasonic this week.

Cybercom Infotainment-on-a-Stick
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