Talking Infotainment & Connectivity

Gary S. Vasilash

Kieran O’Sullivan of Continental talks about how changes in tech will make in-vehicle information and entertainment more accessible.

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Sitting across from Kieran O’Sullivan, executive vice president, Interior Div., Infotainment & Connectivity Business Unit, Continental Automotive Systems (, something becomes obvious—in retrospect. The topic of discussion is information management within vehicles—which is what the Infotainment & Connectivity in his title is essentially about, an effort that O’Sullivan leads on a worldwide basis.

• O’Sullivan talks about HMIs—human-machine interfaces.
• O’Sullivan talks about gauge clusters.
• O’Sullivan talks about center stacks.
• O’Sullivan talks about heads-up
• O’Sullivan talks about information and
• O’Sullivan talks about the importance
of connectivity and interoperability.
• O’Sullivan talks and uses his smart
phone as an example.
• O’Sullivan talks and gestures to
emphasize his point.
• O’Sullivan talks.
And that’s what’s important to think about going forward.
“We believe natural language is one of the killer apps of the future,” O’Sullivan says.
“Natural language” is what O’Sullivan is using. He is simply talking. And while there are voice-recognition systems that are available in a wide range of automobiles today, this user interface is one that is essentially predicated on something that can be considered “artificial language,” inasmuch as there is a set pattern that must be followed in order for the system to “understand” what is being said.
But when O’Sullivan—or anyone else, for that matter (and even some anythings, as in IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson computer (
watson)—talks, s/he/it isn’t using a set pattern—say Subject>Verb>Object—he is simply talking. And because we understand language (assuming that he’s talking in a language we know), we can follow what he’s saying, even if it isn’t said in a pattern.  What O’Sullivan thinks will be a killer app is “Not just command and control”—(e.g., “Call Kieran”)—“but speaking and getting a response spoken back” (e.g., “Give a call to Kieran;” “Calling Kieran”).
“Natural language is very well simulated in in-door environments,” he says. Jeopardy isn’t taped in a car where there are all manner of acoustical and electrical challenges.
“But it will be solved.” 
When O’Sullivan makes a point (e.g., “Relevance will come from the user interface. The right user experience, the HMI, the ergonomics, and the right connectivity solution and interoperability”), he makes it not only by saying words, but by emphasizing it with a gesture, such as pointing a finger.
When O’Sullivan looks for something on his smart phone, he makes a gestural sweep of his finger across the screen. It isn’t the classic “tap, tap, tap” input associated with keyboarding (although he does note that there is a whole generation of people who are growing up with the ability to keyboard with their thumbs; those who grew up dealing with QWERTY keyboards use their thumbs primarily to hit spacebars, not individual characters). O’Sullivan says that gesture recognition is something that they’re looking at to help simplify input. It can improve the ergonomics in the vehicle.
And there is the whole “How come car electronics tend to be so behind the curve versus the handset market?” issue.
“There’s more than a billion handsets sold annually,” O’Sullivan says. “They’re not thinking about cars when they’re designing these [and he gestures with his phone]. They’re thinking about the consumer market. They’re thinking, ‘If I’ve got 10,000 ppm on this, I’ll just throw it away and replace it’ [again, the phone in his hand helps make the point]. That’s not the situation you can have in a car.”
The metrics are entirely different for the quality, reliability and durability. What’s more, there are issues of safety associated with the electronics in vehicles, not only from the standpoint of assuring that safety-critical systems are paramount (e.g., a phone doesn’t have to worry about antilock braking systems), as well as from the standpoint of not being too distracting (e.g., a driver probably shouldn’t have the wherewithal to play Angry Birds while going 75 on I-75).
But there is one similarity between the phone market and automotive electronics.
“These phones get updated. They’re probably being updated while we’re sitting here talking,” he says, with the phone as gestural cue. “That capability is here now for automotive. It used to be when you wanted a software update for a car, you had to bring it back to the dealer. Now you can do it with a USB device or over the air.”
There is a concern that isn’t there for the phone, however: If the software updates are being made for a vehicle, then there has to be certainty that the right installation is being made and that it is fully downloaded. (If you’ve ever, say, used Windows Update, you’ve probably noticed that on more than one occasion not all of the recommended updates are downloaded for whatever reason.)
Changes in infrastructure—as in the so-called “4G” networks (according to the International Telecommunications Union (, which sets international standards for such things, a 4G network should be capable of download speeds of 100 Mbps, and none of the major carriers have anything close to that)—facilitate streaming information into vehicles,which can be useful in a variety of ways, O’Sullivan says, such as being able to download relevant content on the fly.
What about the iPad as interface rather than engineering something else? While that might seem to be a fairly straightforward solution, O’Sullivan points out that there is an issue of integration and safety (an iPad 2 with 3G and WiFi weighs 1.33 lb: would you really want that flying around in the case of a
collision?), as well as one related to what can be downloaded and when.
It is worth noting that the AutoLinQ system that Continental has developed for in-vehicle Internet access is based on an open system. They’re using Linux, as well as working with partners including NAVTEQ and INRIX to be able to integrate capabilities and services into their system. “Were making sure that as we bring this together that it is integrated properly and that it has the right user interface,” he says.
There is also an ecological aspect to all of this, too. O’Sullivan says that they’re working to reduce emissions, and one way to do that is to use technology to provide routing information that will take into account changes in terrain as well as traffic.
“We’re involved with Better Place”—the company that is establishing charging stations as well as battery-changing stations for electric vehicles on a global basis—“on a next-generation platform. When you’re in an electric vehicle you’ll want to know where the nearest charging stations are and how much energy you have left, as well as have software algorithms for energy management.”
It all comes down to providing the technology that will make getting from point A to point B better, safer, and more efficient. It is about providing relevant information in a way that is useful. It is about doing this in a way that is engaging. And, of course, economical.
As Kieran O’Sullivan observes, “You can have tons of technology, but if you don’t get it right and keep it simple, there is no benefit at all.