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Coming to a Dashboard in Front of You – Spending a week with the tech in Toyota’s RAV 4 | Digital PULP

Google Now not only responds to voice searches by giving you information on demand, but it also keeps track of where you are, where you've been and what you've Google'd. It knows everything you do, and what you're likely to do, before you do it.

Toyota  
Toyota  

As a tech journalist I have had the privilege over the last few years to get access to various products, in a long list of different categories and tell the creators, along with the general public what I thought of those products. Sometimes the products were tremendous, other times the products were horrendous, and sometimes, I just can’t decide one way or another. 

The required Entune app running on a Nexus 4. In back you can see Pandora running on the RAV4’s Entune system. The app acts as a gateway, providing the data the Entune apps need.
The required Entune app running on a Nexus 4. In back you can see Pandora running on the RAV4’s Entune system. The app acts as a gateway, providing the data the Entune apps need.

Up until recently, getting a car as a review product was merely a dream; something I hoped I would one day achieve. But there’s a huge issue with this goal — I’m not a gear head. Heck, I couldn’t even change my own oil. Horrible, I know. I’m a tech head. Technology and the way it impacts our day-to-day life is what I am passionate about. (I am willing to trade troubleshooting your iPhone or Android device for an oil change, but I’ll save that for a different article). 

Well, as the saying goes, dreams do come true and Toyota reached out to me a few weeks back asking if I wanted to learn more about the technology built into its current product offering. (As a side note: what an amazing time we live in right now. Car companies are looking to tech-people like myself for input on products. Awesome stuff.) 

I didn’t hesitate, and asked to learn more about Toyota’s technology, and was offered a 2013 RAV4 to be my instructor. I spent right at a week with the RAV4, loaded with a touch-screen and Toyota’s Entune technology built into the dash. 

For those unfamiliar, the Entune system gives the vehicle’s owner to access to a total of five different apps, and five data services directly from the console of the car. Wait, did I just say a car has… apps? I did. I told you, we live in an amazing time right now. 

With Entune you’ll have access to Pandora, iHeartRadio, OpenTable, Bing, and MovieTickets. The data services include fuel prices, stocks, sports, traffic and weather. 

On top of the above listed apps and services, the model of RAV4 I test drove came with a built-in turn-by-turn voice guided navigation system, for those times when you get lost.

The RAV4’s steering wheel comes with controls to activate voice commands, as well as control music playback, regardless of the source.
The RAV4’s steering wheel comes with controls to activate voice commands, as well as control music playback, regardless of the source.

As with any apps you install on your smartphone, or home computer, there needs to be some sort of Internet connection for them to stay up to date and be used. The same applies to Entune, but instead of having to bring a data connection (be it cellular or otherwise) into the car, your smartphone is required for the connection.  

You’ll need to pair your Android or iOS device with your car using the built-in Bluetooth settings (the process is simple, with the entire time to pair a device taking less than two-minutes). Once paired, you can answer phone calls, place phone calls or stream music from your device through your car’s audio system. All of which are pretty standard features for most newer cars, so I’ll spare you from covering these features in depth.  

A free app is available for download from the Play Store or App Store, depending on your platform. The Entune app will need to be up and running on your device in order for the data connection to be present between your phone and car. 

Another benefit of pairing your device to your car is that it will provide Internet to the Entune apps and services, through the Entune app. For an iPhone, you’ll need to be sure to use a USB cable for full Internet connection through Entune, while Android users can use just the Bluetooth connection to provide a connection between the apps and services with the Internet. 

A closer image of the in-dash navigation system, complete with Entune technology in the RAV4.
A closer image of the in-dash navigation system, complete with Entune technology in the RAV4.

With relying on your smartphones data connection, Entune also falls victim to the limitations placed by carriers on data plans. If you’re on a tiered data plan, or a shared data plan with fellow family members, you’re going to have to monitor your usage closely. 

The good news is, during the week I was driving and testing the RAV4, with most of my data usage coming in the form of Pandora Radio, I used less than 40 MB of data (according to the data usage section of my Nexus 4). With the average data plan for an individual account starting with a 2 GB allotment, 40 MB of data per week isn’t worrisome in the least. 

Bing search, iHeartRadio, OpenTable and MovieTickets all provide common services you’ll need when traveling. You can make dinner reservations through OpenTable at popular local restaurants (except in Pueblo, where there are zero locations participating), or find a theater, movie times and purchase tickets using the MovieTickets app. Of course, Bing is a bit limited with Entune, only providing access to venues and points of interest, and not the vast knowledge available on the Internet. But Bing will be useful if you want to search for a type of restaurant, or a local business and place a call. 

The data services provide you with quick information at a glance. Traffic reports, stock updates, gas prices, weather and sports are all topics most people want to keep up on, especially when on the road. Instead of looking down to your smartphone, you’re able to look at a larger display in your dash. 

What I’m still trying to wrap my head around with apps in the car is — are they really necessary? I mean, we already carry smartphones, capable of using the same apps, and completing the same tasks. One could argue the apps built into the car making using them while driving safer; and I agree with the argument. A bigger touchscreen provides for bigger touch targets, which means your eyes stay on the road longer. 

You can access each app by selecting it from the list if entries within the “Apps” directory.
You can access each app by selecting it from the list if entries within the “Apps” directory.

But, in the end, if my smartphone is still required to run the apps in a car, and I can connect my phone via a 3.5mm plug or Bluetooth to achieve the same results, am I going to spend the extra money on a vehicle (which can be viewed as a rather expensive accessory for your smartphone at that point) just to have bigger touch targets? I’m not sure. 

Two years ago, when I first saw a demo of using the data service on your smartphone to bring apps and services into a a car, not only did it make sense, but it was during a time when unlimited data was the norm. Now, it still makes sense, but managing and worrying about data caps in a car isn’t something most people will want to mess with. 

I would love to see a solution where data service is included in the car, and included in the price of the car. No extra monthly fees, no smartphone required. Get in the car, turn it on and you have Internet. 

I feel Entune (actually, this applies to apps within any car, no matter the manufacturer) is a work in progress; a way of introducing services and technology typically reserved for the palm of your hand or on your desktop to the masses. Once the general public begins to accept this type of tech in a car, and car manufacturers learn how the technology is ultimately used, it can be expanded and built upon, to make it a convenient and cost affordable solution.

Right now, it feels like a product in its infancy, and while I have my personal reservations, I can’t wait to see what future updates (yes, the Entune setup can be improved and updated through software updates, without requiring you to purchase a new car when new tech is released) bring to the dash of cars around us. 

Exciting times we live in.

Jason Cipriani | @mrcippy

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