How do you get someone to pay hundreds of dollars for an inferior product, when most people already have a better one in their pocket?
That’s the problem facing carmakers trying to sell built-in navigation systems when superior alternatives such as Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze are available for free to anyone with a smartphone — which is almost everybody.
Most in-dash navigation systems aren’t as smart as your phone, perhaps lacking traffic data or point-of-interest information, and stuck with clunky update procedures. And solutions like Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto, which essentially mirror your phone on the screen of your car’s console, force carmakers to cede an important driver experience to third parties.
But improvements are on the horizon. In-dash navigation systems will be getting smarter, not just learning your preferences and using data connections for timely updates, but crowdsourcing sensor information from connected vehicles to assess traffic problems and road conditions — even guiding you around a newly formed pothole.
And next-generation navigation systems are not just an important way for carmakers to interact with drivers. They are also a crucial step in the development of autonomous vehicles.
Garmin and TomTom — companies that became best known for GPS units that sit atop the dash — are also major providers of mapping data and in-dash user interfaces to car manufacturers.
TomTom is “collecting data on a large scale, learning how to aggregate it to spot trends in traffic for autonomous vehicles,” its chief executive, Harold Goddijn, said. “All the car manufacturers will need to share that data.”
But for now, many carmakers bundle their navigation systems with other features, forcing buyers to take one in order to get something else they actually want.
Do you want your gauges to appear on a digital display, instead of a standard instrument panel, in your new vehicle? Buyers of certain trim levels of some Audi and Volvo models may have to purchase a bundle that includes navigation. Volvo charges an additional $1,400 in its XC60, while Audi’s could cost as much as $3,000, depending on the vehicle.
Buyers of Alfa Romeo’s base Giulia model who want Sirius XM satellite radio must take the navigation system, too — at a cost of $1,900.
“This business model is not sustainable,” said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director of connected vehicles and services.
Even with their limitations, in-dash systems have some advantages. They’re convenient and uncluttered. There’s no need to find a way to suspend a smartphone and its dangling charge cable in the middle of the instrument panel. They use a vehicle’s built-in controls, and there’s no danger of running out of power.
But in-dash systems typically store data locally, meaning information may be inaccurate and outdated. Upgrading such systems can be difficult or even impossible. Even when it can be done, it can be a multistep process of downloading new data to a flash drive and then transferring it to the vehicle.
In a recent test of a 2015 model-year car, the built-in navigation system had no listing for a winery that has been in business for 15 years. Both Apple Maps and Google Maps found it in a split second. That’s because smartphone navigation apps are cloud based, continually updated with new information.
But in-dash systems are closing the gap. On the way are products that are connected to the cloud and easily upgraded via an over-the-air data connection. Tesla uses over-the-air updates to occasionally renew its maps, while Ford has already used such updates to add CarPlay and Android Auto functionality to models with its Sync3 system.
And soon, maps will rely not just on stored information but on constantly updated data gleaned from a vehicle’s cameras and sensors and data from other drivers.
“Pressure from Google Maps and Apple Maps made automobile manufacturers realize they have to step up with over-the-air updates of their maps and their software,” Mr. Goddijn said.
Many manufacturers get their map data from third-party companies, and then create their own user interface design. HERE, owned by Audi, BMW and Daimler, also supplies data to Ford. Garmin and TomTom provide user interfaces and mapping data for Apple Maps and many vehicle manufacturers, including Honda and Tesla.
HERE’s next-generation in-dash navigation technology will debut this year in Audi’s new A8 sedan and the 2019 Porsche Cayenne. The A8 will, among other things, use HERE technology to learn a driver’s route preferences, and then make more informed route suggestions.
Drivers can use the HERE smartphone app at home to plan a route, which will be automatically transferred to the in-vehicle system. When the driver reaches his or her destination, the app will pick up from there for foot or public transit directions.
Route-mapping will be handled on HERE’s servers, which will take into account traffic conditions far off the planned path that could nevertheless affect navigation. In addition, map data will include not just the road itself but information on weather, curves, inclines, junctions and city limits, allowing the vehicle to adjust its speed accordingly.
In-dash navigation systems will also use information gleaned from a vehicle’s sensors and cameras to position a vehicle in a lane, with accuracy within eight inches.
“Our sensor technology will allow us to tell drivers to remain in one lane on a road for the fastest travel time,” Mr. Butler, of Ford, said.
Technology from TomTom will let drivers indicate whether they’re looking for the fastest route, or the one with the least stop-and-go traffic, and be instructed accordingly. When a single vehicle using HERE technology passes over a pothole, it will be recorded and subsequent vehicles directed around it.
HERE is already accumulating such passively derived road data from 500,000 vehicles across the world. Currently, the company is sharing its data with only its three big German owners. In the United States, about 14 percent of cars on the road have the sensors necessary to transmit road conditions, Mr. Butler said.
With the development of autonomous vehicles, that sort of information becomes even more important, enabling a car to learn about road conditions from other vehicles and safely navigate around accidents, tie-ups, potholes and flash floods.
“Currently, our in-dash navigation systems are at a disadvantage compared to smartphone apps,” Mr. Butler said. “But soon, we’ll be at an advantage.”