Next-gen in-car infotainment: iPads and Wi-Fi on wheels

DETROIT— Cars aren’t just expected to take you places anymore. They’re also counted upon to keep everyone connected, informed, and amused along the way.

Car infotainment systems have been developing rapidly over the past few years, as we've seen new ways of bringing music, mapping and traffic information, weather reports, and other features into your vehicle. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, these in-car systems were as much a part of the show-floor conversation as engine and safety technology.

Among the highlights I saw were a humongous touchscreen control panel, new interfaces to control the growing list of infotainment features, and plenty of new ways to keep the kids in the back seat entertained.

Tesla’s huge touchscreen wows the crowd

Tesla’s reputation for bold automotive breakthroughs carries through to its in-car infotainment systems. The production Model S and prototype Model X cars shown in Detroit wowed the crowd with huge, center-mounted, 17-inch touchscreens.

Melissa Riofrio
The 17-inch touchscreen panel on Tesla’s Model S and Model X cars contains most of the car's controls, and it can also surf the Web.

These displays, which run on a special blend of Linux designed by Tesla, serve as both the primary control panel and the infotainment interface for each car. Web browsing is the nicest bonus; you can do pretty much anything except stream video.

Tesla has teamed up with an unidentified carrier to provide 3G connectivity for the in-car browsing and other connected services, and the company says the service is free to Model S buyers for the first year. Beyond that first year of free service, monthly pricing has not yet been set.

Oh yeah? Infiniti’s Q50 has dual displays

At the show, Infiniti previewed its superfancy Q50 sedan, which is due out this summer. This new model gets pretty close to Tesla’s impressive in-car system by offering dual touchscreens to use with Infiniti’s InTouch infotainment system.

Infiniti
The dual display on the Infiniti Q50.

The upper screen handles primary functions such as navigation, while the lower screen can be used to show additional settings or secondary content. InTouch comes preloaded with some vehicle-centric apps, and you can also load your own apps into the system. Infiniti promises more information about the InTouch offerings as the vehicle nears its full debut.

Audi can make your car a Wi-Fi hotspot

‘Audi connect’ is the umbrella name for the infotainment offerings available in the high-end German automaker's cars. They’re not free. Your car must be equipped with either MMI Navigation Plus or MMI Navigation Plus with MMI Touch, both of which come standard on some model trims but are optional on others. On-the-road Web access is provided by setting up an account with T-Mobile.

The MMI units can display current news and location-based data such as weather and gas-station locations. If you set up a free myAudi account, you can also send directions straight to the car from a Web browser; myAudi Destination lets you log onto Google Maps to set a route to up to 50 destinations and transfer the info to your car via Audi connect. For the 2013 models, cars equipped with either MMI system also get a free four-year subscription to SiriusXM Traffic.

Most Audi displays are in-dash, but on the new RS7 Sportback that was just announced, the monitor will retract into the dash.

Audi
The infotainment monitor on the new Audi RS7 retracts into the dashboard when not in use.

Passengers during a long road trip will appreciate the Rolling Wi-Fi Hotspot feature. As you can probably guess from the name, this factory-installed option turns your car into a secure hotspot for up to eight connected devices.

Chevy steps up with next-gen MyLink

Chevrolet aims to one-up the infotainment offerings from its Ford and Toyota rivals with its 2014 model-year Impala, which will offer an updated MyLink system. New to this generation will be voice recognition that better understands natural language, eliminating the need to utter key words like some sort of robot.

Chevrolet
Chevy’s updated MyLink system has a graphical touch interface.

The car’s stock interface is a 4.2-inch LCD, but an optional 8-inch touchscreen upgrade provides a more tablet-like feel. Real knobs and physical controls remain present for those who prefer them. You can customize the look of the interface a bit by choosing from four aesthetic themes. To minimize glancing away from the road while driving, you can also choose to display some settings on the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel.

VW CrossBlue Concept includes iPad minis

Concept cars are dreams that might not come true, but Volkswagen’s CrossBlue SUV is impressively thorough in its infotainment-setup detail. Adorning the dashboard is a 10.2-inch touchscreen that can display content in 3D for more vivid depictions of routes or media choices. Backseat passengers get iPad minis embedded into the front headrests for playing around with apps, listening to music, watching video, or surfing the Web.

Volkswagen
The VW CrossBlue concept has a 10.2-inch touchscreen with 3D imaging.

The road ahead

These in-car infotainment systems are just the latest examples of a burgeoning category in car tech. Of course, you won’t find them in most makes and models yet. When you do, you’re likely to face ongoing data-plan costs unless your smartphone acts as the car’s data conduit.

These things are speeding toward the mainstream on the in-car technology front, so buckle up. It’s only a matter of time before a car without some sort of huge touchscreen or wireless connectivity seems archaic.

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