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Gadget of the Week

When a car becomes a smartphone

Finally, a car maker aligns its onboard system with the most common gadget in the world, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK as he tries Volvo’s onboard tech

The Volvo XC 60 T8 Recharge is among the first of a family of plug-in hybrid cars from Volvo and electric cars that marks the beginning of the car maker’s transition to an all- electric range by 2030. 

But the remarkable aspect of this car and this new range is what is built into the infotainment system.

For the last 10 years, every single onboard navigation system that I have used on a car has been inferior to what is available on any phone I’ve used in this time. Bear in mind that, when a navigation system has been an optional extra in a car, it has cost anywhere between R20,000 and R40,000 extra. In many cases, the mapping system had to be upgraded through physically installing the software, at an additional cost.

It was always baffling that the car makers didn’t collaborate with the mobile map makers to install the likes of Google Maps, Apple Maps and Waze. The closest they came was the 2015 acquisition of Nokia Here mapping by a consortium made up of Audi, BMW and Daimler. The result, in their cars, has not been spectacular. It was a case of separating the application from the ecosystem for which it was designed. Google Maps, on the other hand, remains inextricably linked to the evolution of the application on other platforms.

Recently, onboard mapping has improved across most car ranges, especially Audi, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, but they still don’t come close to what one can get on any smartphone. These cars also connect the vehicle infotainment system to Android Auto and Apple Car Play, but this still allows only a limited number of apps, and the integration is sometimes iffy. 

Finally, in 2017, Volvo Cars announced a partnership with Google to develop the next generation of its in-car infotainment and connectivity setup based on the Android operating system (OS). This meant that Volvo could increase speed and flexibility in development of its infotainment system, and offer the ability to personalise the connected in-car experience more effectively than we have yet seen in a car.

In test-driving the XC60 T8 Recharge, we connected the car to both a mobile hotspot on a  smartphone and to a Wi-Fi dongle. The setup was not intuitive, however. Where handsets quickly and easily detect and connect to hotspots, the car took some exploration and playing around with settings. However, once connected, live mapping became active. One can also choose to connect Android Auto and have Waze on the screen, but our tests showed the onboard navigation performed seamlessly.

When not connected, we were still able to use it offline. Unless there are major traffic issues, it is usually pretty reliable. We tested it on several routes and found that the accuracy of estimated time of arrival was close to 100%. 

Google Assistant is also built-in, again providing more effective functionality than any in-car voice activation we have tried. The same principle applies as to Maps: standalone voice systems cannot match up to the ongoing evolution of the Android version. With one exception: it doesn’t work when offline.

Ultimately, Volvo Cars’ partnership with Google reflects the ongoing convergence between the smartphone and the car. It points to a near future when the functionality of the infotainment system will be almost indistinguishable from that of a smartphone.

The only difference will be that you can’t carry the car around in your pocket.

What does it cost?

The XC60 T8 Recharge has a South African starting price of R1,218,900, including a 5-year/100,000km warranty and maintenance plan.

Why should you care?

Volvo has given the industry a wake-up call by natively including Android, and therefore Google Maps, Google Assistant and other features, onboard.

Henrik Green, senior vice president of research and development at the Volvo Car Group, said it best back in 2017 when the Google partnership was announced: “Google’s platform and services will enhance the user experience by enabling more personalisation possibilities, while Android will offer increased flexibility from a development perspective.

“With the advent of Android in our cars we will embrace a rich ecosystem while keeping our iconic Volvo user interface. We will offer hundreds of popular apps and the best integrated experience in this broad, connected environment.”

In comparison, Android Auto feels like your grandfather’s in-car technology.

What are the biggest negatives

  • Switching accounts on the vehicle’s infotainment system is still complicated.
  • Internet connectivity is not intuitive.
  • The starting price tag is exceptionally high, but is the beginning of integration of the technology across the full range.

What are the biggest positives?

  • Having the same navigation system in the car as on the phone is a huge step towards seamless integration of phones and cars.
  • Built-in Google Maps is highly effective even when not connected to the Internet.
  • Logging into a Google account in the car synchronises the settings one has on a regular Android device.

* Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.

Video details:

  • Presenter/Scripting: Arthur Goldstuck
  • Cameraman: Ilan Ossendryver
  • Post-production: Bryan Turner
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