Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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The Case for Home Theater Ethernet

3d1Most middle class homes have multiple mobile devices floating around. From iPod Touches to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the average family has quite a few gadgets relying on its wi-fi wireless connectivity to get to the internet and consume social media and streaming content like video and music.

Many consumers don’t realize that there’s an alternative to wi-fi called Ethernet. Ethernet is a hardwired technology, meaning there’s nothing wireless about it.

To use Ethernet, you must run a special cable from your internet router (where the broadband enters your home) to any Ethernet-connected equipment you wish to receive wired bandwidth. A networking technology that evolved within the computer world, Ethernet has been around for decades. In its current implementation, it’s extremely fast and reliable. It operates over special cabling called CAT5 or CAT6. Compared to wi-fi, Ethernet is considerably faster and more stable. Baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and microwave ovens all compete for the most common variety of wi-fi on the same 2.4 GHz frequency. Because it’s hardwired, Ethernet lacks the sensitivity to radio frequency interference that plagues wi-fi.

Wi-Fi For Mobile Only

Thus, with bandwidth and reliability being so much better with Ethernet, why is everyone using wi-fi for devices that don’t demand it? Wi-fi should be considered an optimal connectivity option for mobile devices only. Smartphones and tablets that need to move about, tether-free, are why wi-fi was created and has become so popular. We’re simply over utilizing this cool wireless tech due to its low cost and super-simple implementation (and who doesn’t like a lack of obnoxious cables?). Companies selling us stuff love to tout wireless. If wireless data is the path of least resistance, consumers are going to accept what is often the default communications method. Even my Nest thermostat uses wi-fi to upload data to the cloud and allow me to control it from any mobile device.

The vulnerabilities of wi-fi really wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone wasn’t sucking down so much high-definition video (sometimes with a six-channel surround sound audio track). The irony is that we’re taking the most frail connection technology, wi-fi, and taxing it with the most robust and “heavy” data there is, high-definition video.

The good news about Ethernet is that you might not need to purchase new equipment to take advantage of it. Newer AV receivers and Blu-ray players, as well as streaming media boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, all feature an Ethernet port (often labeled “LAN,” for Local Area Network). Your internet router necessarily supports Ethernet. All major media streamers, with the exception of Chromecast (which is wi-fi only), support Ethernet. If your receiver and Blu-ray player do also, it’s a compelling reason to run Ethernet to all of these devices in your home theater.

ethernet switchIt should be noted that you (or your installer) will be running a single CAT6 cable from your internet router to your home theater equipment. However, if you’re like me, you have between two and four devices that need an internet feed, not one. How does a single CAT6 cable accommodate multiple devices on the receiving end? Simple, with a device called an Ethernet switch, also referred to as a gigabit switch (ensure that you purchase one that supports gigabit data speeds).

Ethernet Switches

An Ethernet switch simply takes a single input (from your router, possibly on the other side of your house) and splits it into multiple outputs (similar to a USB hub). Fortunately, these devices are affordable, with prices beginning at $35. You can provide bandwidth to as many devices as the switch has ports (models are available that provide between three and eight ports, on average).

Many people have non-mobile, stationary devices that are being fed wi-fi. Good examples include AV receivers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, and desktop PCs. In my Kindle books Home Theater for the Internet Age and the shorter version, Understanding Home Theater, I make a case for choosing Ethernet over wi-fi whenever possible. If a device isn’t mobile, give it Ethernet. Period.

One big benefit to getting most or all of your non-mobile devices on Ethernet instead of wi-fi is freeing wi-fi bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need it. Most people are consuming streaming media, specifically high-definition video, on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. They need all the bandwidth they can get. Taking a bandwidth-hungry Netflix video stream and moving it from wi-fi to Ethernet frees tons of wireless bandwidth for iPhones and Nexus tablets (which are probably also sucking down their own high-definition video).

If you’re tired of your video buffering on Hulu Plus or the image on your display panel freezing when you’re watching Vudu or Crackle, segmenting your home network bandwidth between wi-fi and Ethernet may be just the ticket to alleviating your headaches. Just like how the car traffic on a multi-lane freeway will flow most smoothly if the vehicles are roughly equally distributed among the lanes, home networks that segment bandwidth consumption to avoid competition as much as possible will result in far fewer technical glitches and less frustration. The last time you want to encounter problems is when you’re trying to enjoy your entertainment, not play junior network admin and troubleshoot your router at 10:30 pm after three beers.

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While you’re at it, you might want to consider purchasing a high-end internet router, something that could dramatically improve both your wi-fi and your Ethernet (a good example, and my personal choice, is the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 for about $200, pictured here). Modern “dual band” routers include not one, but two networks, each operating at a completely different frequency (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). This provides you with considerably more bandwidth and segments your devices into logical, device-appropriate networks (older devices that support only 2.4 GHz obviously reside there; newer gadgets that can do 5 GHz always should). Maybe I’ll write a future blog post about the benefits of upgrading to a top shelf router (some models can even automate your backups).

The Potential Downside

The only problem with adopting Ethernet connectivity for your home theater is that it might not sit right beside your internet router. Thus, you (or an installer) may need to make some cable runs and install some face plates to facilitate the jump from wi-fi to Ethernet (costing you some money).

Back in 2013, when I was installing a new home theater in a spare bedroom and upgrading an existing theater in the living room, I paid a few hundred dollars to a professional installer to bring CAT6 cabling from my upstairs data closet (tucked nicely in a laundry room) to my downstairs living room media cabinet. The installer wasn’t simply an electrician, but instead a small firm that specialized in security systems and high-end home theaters. They knew what they were doing. Which is good, because they ran into tons of headaches related to the layout and construction of my house, which required them to be tenacious and creative.

So yes, making the leap from wi-fi to Ethernet may cost you a few bucks. One nice aspect is that much home theater equipment comes Ethernet-ready (but not all; buyer beware). Newer models are more likely to feature support for Ethernet. If a manufacturer is going to charge extra for something, it will typically be wi-fi and Bluetooth. My Pioneer Elite receiver, for example, lacks wi-fi, but Pioneer will sell me a ridiculously overpriced wi-fi dongle for $130. I’d rather give that money to a pro installer and forever rid myself of the need to primitively provide bandwidth to my home theater using wi-fi.

As I discuss in my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, there is a middle-ground option when it comes to providing bandwidth to non-mobile devices in your home called a powerline adapter. While not as fast or reliable as Ethernet, powerline adapters are brother and sister pairs that plug into power outlets (one beside your router, the other beside the devices you wish to feed broadband) to deliver a relatively fast internet signal. Powerline adapters are cost effective (typically under $100) and very easy to install. They’re plug-and-play and almost never require attention. I use a powerline adapter to deliver broadband to my upstairs home theater and have experienced smooth streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.