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Could a tablet replace a car’s infotainment system?

By Daniel Cawrey / July 10, 2013

If you’ve been car shopping recently, you may have noticed that most of the knobs and buttons commonly found on dashboards have been replaced by touchscreens. Though they differ from mobile devices, they certainly share similar forms and functions. It seems it’s only a matter of time before mobile companies become original equipment manufacturers (OEM) for the car companies.

After all, car companies reap big profits on pricey features like infotainment systems while mobile manufacturers eat all the research and development costs. And while it sounds like a win/win for everyone in the auto industry, only a few brands have decided to take this new business model for a test drive.

Why it makes sense

In-car digital systems were first seen in 2001 when BMW premiered the iDrive, but this revolutionary dashboard system may have been a bit ahead of its time. Taking a cue from Apple’s first-generation iPod, iDrive put all peripheral vehicle functions under the command of a single click wheel. This was an era before intuitive tablets, and some users found iDrive hard to navigate.

Since the iDrive’s initial roll out, infotainment systems have started mimicking more user-friendly tablets. So from a development standpoint, using an existing tablet-based platform makes sense. Instead of having to build an entire system from scratch (iDrive) or implement third-party software (Windows Embedded), developers at global automakers could just take the Android framework and build on top of it.

Regulatory hurdles

One of the biggest problems with tablet-based platforms is making sure the driver keeps their hands on the wheel while the car is in motion. Many states in the U.S. have already outlawed texting and talking on the phone while driving, and it’s likely that further measures will be taken to reduce the use of tablets on our roadways. If tablet manufacturers hope to become an auto industry OEM, they’re going to have to think about safety measures previously left in the hands of the consumers.

Apple as an OEM?

For the time being, car makers seem content with simply integrating common mobile features into their existing in-car systems. BMW recently announced it would offer Android app capabilities and Siri voice commands in the lastest version of iDrive. Leave it to Apple, however, to shake things up. They recently purchased a patent for programmable, tactile touchscreen displays and man-machine interfaces from a car-tech company called digitalDash. In layman’s terms, they’ve got plans to enter the auto industry. The big question is, which car manufacturers will let them?