Former Hyundai executive John Krafcik recently spoke about connectivity and autonomy and of the possibility that electronic gizmos in our cars may make us less connected to the driving experience. That’s not the only challenge automakers and drivers face when it comes to electronics in cars. After seeing the missteps that Ford has made with Sync and MyFordTouch, with systems seemingly too complicated or not reliable enough for many drivers, it appears to me that the challenge of chasing a technological treadmill to try and keep cars, which most consumers keep for years, electronically up to date, is a fools errand. Comments to Derek’s post on Krafcik’s statement indicated that there’s definitely a market for less complicated car electronics. People have asked, “why does my car need to duplicate the more up-to-date services that my smartphone provides?” Well, someone at Continental Tire’s electronics and instrument division, VDO, asked that same question and they came up with the Flexible Smartphone Docking Station.
Actually, they didn’t ask that precise question because the FSDS seems to have been originally intended for use in commercial trucks, not passenger cars, but it should work with any 12 volt electrical system. I found out about Continental’s phone dock while I was updating our coverage of Elio Motors and the inexpensive three wheeler they say they’ll start making and selling next year. As part of the deal for Continental to provide Elio with electrical and electronic engineering services that include the vehicle’s wiring harness and engine control unit, Elio will also offer the FSDS system as an option on their trikes. It’s a clever and seemingly cost-effective way of providing what we now call infotainment without having to spend lots of money developing software that will be obsolete while the original owners are still driving their cars. I go over the FSDS in my update about Elio, but not everyone is interested in the Elio trike, and this has relevance to the general discussion of connectivity complexity so I thought I’d break this out into a separate post with a bit more detail.
Continental’s Commercial Vehicles & Aftermarket division, along with VDO, introduced the Flexible Smartphone Docking Station (FSDS) at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show and has been showing it since then at trucking industry trade shows as part of a suite of connectivity products. The FSDS system was designed to let truck drivers’ integrate their smartphones with their vehicles. It appears that Continental is also marketing it as AutoLinQ™Mobile. AutoLinQ is Continental’s brand for in-vehicle connectivity.
The phone mounts to the FSDS with a mechanical clamp designed to hold most smartphones and comes with a phone app, developed by Continental, that enables the availability of phone features, including online services, while driving. The unit, which connects to the smartphone via standard Bluetooth profiles, has an onboard audio amplifier with four channels rated at 20 Watts per channel, an integrated station seeking FM tuner, a 5 volt USB tap for charging your phone and it’s already configured to interface with your vehicle via the CAN bus (which to me sounds like your phone could theoretically be used to control some of your car’s features, just like a built in touch screen). Audio files on thumb drives and memory cards can also be accessed via the USB port on the FSDS’ mounting plate.
In terms of what you can do with it, VDO says that the FSDS app includes the smartphone functions drivers require most while driving, such as phone calls, maps, online points of interest, and music selection. All features use text to speech to reduce distracted driving, and the app bundles related services such as Community (communication & social networking), Vehicle (audio entertainment) and Proximity (individual add-ons) so they can be accessed with a single click. The FSDS is sized to fit a standard single height DIN slot so it can easily be installed in any vehicle made to take a radio. The controls appear to be simple, with just a power switch and a four-position controller.
When they introduced it last year Continental was promoting the FSDS to OEMs and fleets, though it’s being marketed by the same part of Continental that sells to the aftermarket and it’s got obvious potential as something people might want to use to update older cars that have “radios” and “stereos”, not “infotainment”. TTAC has a request in to Continental for pricing information and any news on consumer availability.
With production lead times measured in years rather than months, car makers can’t possibly keep up with the changes in digital consumer electronics and related software applications. By the time a car company’s latest revision to their infotainment systems hits the showrooms, it’s obsolete compared to what many car buyers already have in their pockets and purses. My first thought was that other car companies may follow Elio’s lead and offer the FSDS or something very much like it in order to provide modern infotainment features in their entry level cars. On second thought, considering that Audi had some consumer issues with early iterations of their MMI system, some folks hate Cadillac’s CUE interface, and Jaguar’s touchscreens’ slow response became a cliche for car reviewers, smartphone or tablet based “infotainment” systems may not be restricted to just the low end of the market.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS