Connected Cars

There’s a revolution shaking up the car industry. A shift in customer preferences has car makers downplaying traditional strongholds such as chassis and engine development—and instead focusing on car tech and infotainment.

Just like our home entertainment experience, drivers expect Internet every minute of every day. That’s spurred newer in-car electronics such as advanced telephone and vehicle information content—as well as better physical controls like in-dash touchscreen navigation. Popular software packages such as Apple CarPlay, Google navigation or Waze have become as integral to a new generation of vehicles as hardware.

Many consumers value, and are willing to pay for, the ability to use in-vehicle communication, productivity and entertainment applications. If you haven’t been in the market for a few years, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by these dazzling new features available in cars. Automakers scramble to one-up each other. Systems range from basic to advanced, and quality varies by the car model you choose.

When comparing cars and their infotainment value, here are six characteristics to look for:

1. Bluetooth connectivity.
Bluetooth-enabled products just need to be in the same area in order to communicate with each other. Bluetooth systems allow you to access your car music streaming, and other features, from hands-free calling and messaging to video displays.

The key to how these systems work is how they allow you to access various content using apps on your smartphone. On many vehicles, Bluetooth connectivity is a standard feature.

Pairing your dashboard system to your phone is crucial. Systems using Bluetooth wireless technology can be finicky, for a number of reasons.

When sizing-up an infotainment system, run through some everyday functions, like setting up a Bluetooth connection, tuning in to a radio station, setting and accessing presets, adjusting the cabin temperature, and operating some apps.

2. Voice control.
Voice control is almost a necessity in our always-connected world. It lets you do things like send texts and make phone calls by simply pushing a button and speaking, while remaining focused on the road.

In select models, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service, Alexa, has been integrated into a car’s entertainment and navigation hub.

This area is advancing rapidly, as other interface options are evolving. Some new technologies are “head up displays” (text, music and controls projected through your windshield) as well as those given through the easy-to-reach console-mounted touchpad controller. So check the automakers’ websites to see what’s available on any car that sparks your interest.

3. Music streaming services.
Most cars come with one or more ways to link a smartphone or portable music device, so you can listen to your selections through your car’s audio system. Of course, with a good Bluetooth connection, you can just use your phone’s Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio or Aha app.

But newer in-dash music streaming technology is a boon—no more killing your phone’s battery or having to use low-power mode. Native Spotify integration is available in many BMW, Jaguar LandRover, Ford, Volvo and MINI models. Pandora, meanwhile, is available in some 200 models.

And soon, look for newer tech allowing for cloud-based content sharing for sending movies and music to a passenger’s iPod or iPad.

4. Wi-Fi.
More automakers are beginning to offer built-in Wi-Fi and LTE 4G connectivity in newer vehicles. This makes your car function like a rolling hot spot for wireless connectivity for multiple users and devices.

The bigger and better antenna built into your car gives you a stronger and more consistent signal than using your smartphone as a hotspot. If you’re a passenger, Wi-Fi can turn a long ride into a chance to catch up on work or the latest movie.

However, you’ll still have to pay for whatever data plan you choose—take a look at the pricing plans and see if it makes sense for you.

5. Over-the-air updates.
As cars become increasingly connected, software updates are becoming more critical. Software updates not only enable new features in your car, like updated map information, but updates also patch dangerous software glitches or bugs.

Currently, most vehicles must be taken to a dealer or service center to receive software updates, or the owner has to download the software to install the update on their own. But that won’t be the case for long. Tesla already supports smart over-the-air software updates, and other major car makers are planning to do so. According to research firm IHS, by 2022, over 32 million vehicles will offer over-the-air updates.

6. Monthly fees.
Some in-car app systems charge a monthly or annual fee just for the apps and information and another monthly charge for Wi-Fi. Ask your dealer about these fees, and which services are free and which are paid.

When car buying, a proper test-drive will help shoppers effectively judge how a new car performs and whether there are any mechanical problems. But it’s a good idea to take the tech for a spin too. Ask the salesperson for a technology walk-through to see how easy the car’s systems are to use.

Resources: TRUECar® Inc., Financial Times, Edmunds.com, Business Insider, Cars.com, PC Magazine