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Honda’s Head in the Clouds with new HondaLink

New smartphone-based infotainment system to offer extensive apps list.

by on Jul.20, 2012

A HondaLink screen shows some of the available features with the new system.

With virtually every automaker now offering some form of high-tech infotainment system, Honda might have just seemed late to the party with the launch of its new HondaLink technology – were it not, that is, for the fact that the maker’s smartphone-based system will pull down data from the “cloud,” eventually offering the ability to access dozens, perhaps 100s of different “apps.”

The new HondaLink system will make its debut in the all-new 2013 Honda Accord and then expand to the Fit Electric, Crosstour and other Honda models.

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The basic concept isn’t all that different from what other automakers have begun offering, such as the Ford Sync and new Mercedes-Benz mBrace2.  HondaLink will not only feature such traditional infotainment sources as AM/FM, satellite radio, CD and iPhone/MP3, but will also allow a motorist to access music, news and other information sources that can be streamed through a smartphone.

There are literally 100s, if not thousands of such sources – even more if you consider that virtually every broadcast radio station and TV network now puts out a feed through the “cloud.”  The challenge is being able to access those sources.

A growing number of vehicles now offer the ability to access a select group of apps, such as the Pandora radio service or Stitcher news.  But the range of services available on most infotainment systems can be counted on one hand.  And it can take quite some time for an automaker to validate and approve access to additional apps.

Honda is taking a different approach.  It is partnering with service provide Aha to stream Internet radio – a Pandora-like service – news updates and other features such as Yelp, Facebook and Twitter.  Significantly, Aha will take charge of validating and adding new entertainment and information sources that can be used on the HondaLink system in the future.

“There’s a rising demand among premium mass and luxury owners for these kinds of services,” says Honda’s Charles Koch, during a news media conference call.

Honda isn’t the only automaker looking to an outside partner to speed up the integration of smartphone apps.  Chevrolet is studying a possible alliance with Michigan-based Livio that would also effectively outsource the job of approving and integrating new app-based infotainment sources.

While virtually any smartphone app can be played through a vehicle’s audio system via a cable – or in some cases through a Bluetooth link – HondaLink allows Aha-approved apps to be operated by the vehicle’s dashboard or steering wheel controls, eliminating the need to reach down for a smartphone.

That, the maker says, reduces the potential for distracted driving.  Nonetheless, the rapid rise of infotainment technology – and especially the introduction of Facebook and Twitter feeds – has raised concerns about in-car distractions.  A recent proposal by the National Transportation Safety Board would bar virtually all such features short of basic car radio.  Even navigation systems might be restricted in functionality by another proposal recently floated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But, for the moment, infotainment systems are among the hottest features in the auto industry, replacing traditional pitches for the likes of leather seats, cupholders or bigger engines.

It remains to be seen how easy the HondaLink system will be to operate.  According to the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Survey, infotainment-related issues are now the single biggest source of complaints by new car buyers, overtaking wind noise which had long ranked number one.

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