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Volvo’s XC90 will feature Android Auto.

Auto makers have embraced in-car infotainment as a way to offer a connected experience for drivers, but without any standardization, these systems have struggled to resonate.

There is no exact figure on how much the industry has collectively invested in developing infotainment systems, but a MarketsandMarkets research report projects in-car infotainment will be worth $14.4-billion (U.S.) by 2016, representing a 12-per-cent increase year-over-year since 2010.

Despite the growth, Consumer Reports' Annual Auto Reliability Survey noted a number of issues with the 248 vehicle models between 2005 and 2014 from 28 brands cited in the study. Infotainment systems accounted for the majority of complaints among the 17 problem areas addressed.

"Any auto maker with an infotainment program is grappling with the fact that the current hardware in the head unit, including the processor, represents technology from 2010," says Greg Basich, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics. "There are a lot of hardware constraints that make it tough, so many OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are looking at various smartphone integration solutions as one way to get around that problem, while others are going the embedded route."

Combining telematics, navigation and media integration has largely been the focus for auto makers, but the proliferation of smartphones and apps has also presented a challenge for their systems to be truly connected, safe and relevant.

Apple and Google view vehicles as an important area with which to improve the user experience for iOS and Android devices, respectively. ABI Research projects that CarPlay could be in as many as 24 million vehicles by 2019. IHS, a global information company, sees Android Auto outpacing Apple's solution by 2020.

"We see things going toward CarPlay and Android Auto, but as Apple and Google tend to do, it's their way or the highway," says Basich. "These are smartphone projection solutions that aren't actually on the head unit in the dash, they just run on whatever operating system the car stereo is running on."

Essentially, both are middleware platforms that should theoretically be easy for OEMs to integrate into their respective systems.

Ottawa-based QNX is a middleware provider helping make that possible. Its platform is open and capable enough to allow an OEM to build just about anything it can envision its cockpit doing, says Derek Kuhn, vice-president of sales and marketing at QNX.

"Where it does get more contentious is when you start talking about what each auto maker will or won't embrace," says Kuhn. "There are legitimate concerns about how to navigate and interact with the plethora of messaging apps that folks want built into the car."

The average product cycle for a vehicle doesn't help, though Kuhn suggests that it's not so much a technology gap as it is the comfort level and liability concerns of each OEM. There are also a number of suppliers involved that have to collaborate amid a growing understanding that infotainment systems can't remain stagnant.

"Consumers will expect to buy a car and add firmware and app updates over-the-air like they've become used to with mobile devices," he says. "OEMs know this already, but when it comes to how much integration they allow, they each make those decisions based on the model of vehicle and what they feel works best for their customers."

Aftermarket vendors have tried to address these shortcomings by tackling both smartphone integration and regular updates simultaneously. Pioneer was the first to bring CarPlay compatibility to the market in October via a firmware update to its 2014 NEX series of multimedia head units. However, updates need to be downloaded onto a USB stick and then loaded directly to the unit, not over the air or via WiFi.

Andrew Murphy, director of marketing at Pioneer Canada, says the company's goal is to operate with the speed of change that's happening in the smartphone industry. As is, limited smartphone integration across the board only serves to set up drivers to run afoul of distracted-driver legislation.

"You can stream music from apps like Spotify, and while you can skip tracks, one of the issues you're going to have is changing the playlist or searching for an artist or track, which you can't really do unless you start accessing the phone," says Murphy. "Deeper voice integration is one of the tools that could make that a hands-free interaction, but there will likely be additional solutions that appear in the future."

Basich agrees, pointing out that even the primary functions of smartphones – calls, navigation, music, messaging and voice activation – are controlled by a multitude of apps consumers prefer to use that will need deeper integration.

"It's going to be the next generation of cars starting in 2015 before we begin seeing systems that are more appealing to consumers," he says.

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