The Future of In-Car Connectivity: We Sample Pioneer's AppRadio Stereo Interface

We all know that trying to use a smartphone in the car can be a dangerous event. Sure, automakers have introduced a variety of stereos that interface with iPhone and Android phones decently well, but they offer little in terms of access to car-relevant apps, and in some instances, can even be a pain to operate.

Well, not any more. At a small media preview in San Francisco, Pioneer Electronics revealed its new AppRadio that aims to rethink connectivity altogether. As Ted Cardenas, director of marketing for the car electronics division of Pioneer explained, the smartphone is the gateway to the connected world, but the connected world can’t simply be brought directly into the car. It needs to be safely integrated.

“(AppRadio) is really the solution for bringing that connected world into the car, but doing it in a safe way,” Cardenas said. “It is formatting the apps, the content, and the power of the smartphone and bringing it into the car for the first time.”

Only three physical buttons (volume up/down, home screen) can be pressed by AppRadio users. The rest of the controls are displayed on a brilliant high-resolution WVGA 6.1-inch capacitive touchscreen modeled in the same vein as the latest iPhone 4 and Android phones. For the first generation, Pioneer engineered the AppRadio to interface with only the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch running iOS 4. Why? Baby steps first, Pioneer says. Then again, AppRadio isn’t named iPhoneRadio for a reason.

To use, drivers plug their device into the standard 30-pin connection after downloading the AppRadio app from the iTunes store. Then on, they can access a variety of applications modified for safe driving, meaning you can’t play Bejeweled or watch Netflix, nor can you check email or send texts unless you're completely stopped.

For the initial debut, Pioneer partnered specifically with Google Maps, INRIX (real time traffic alerts), Motion X-GPS (turn-by-turn maps), Rdio (social media audio sharing), and Pandora, with other developers coming onboard soon with their own AppRadio-specific programs. Since no application or personal data is stored in the AppRadio unit itself, all app updates arrive via the iTunes App Store.

Pioneer made sure to include traditional terrestrial AM/FM radio capability, as well as Bluetooth mobile phone connectivity (not audio streaming) and an input for a rearview camera. There is an external microphone for the Bluetooth and a wired remote steering adapter so that your car’s wheel buttons can operate with the AppRadio. And no, ye old purist, there is no slot for CDs, but there is an external GPS antenna to ensure you don’t get lost.

We had a chance to play with the new system and can say that it is quite fast and easy to navigate – just like a smartphone. The double-din screen is vibrant and just the right size, not too big or too small. All the modified applications worked as advertised and proved simple to read and access. The sole drawback? Those with Androids are out of luck for at least a few months.

Nonetheless, Pioneer has engineered an interface that will likely attract an extremely large audience that doesn’t need a thumping orchestration of finely tuned frequencies and bass, but that just wants an ideal, safe, and very useful way to connect their phone to their car. Don’t be surprised to see similar systems offered by automakers in a few years. Those iPhone owners interested in the AppRadio will have to wait until late June with just under $500 in their pockets.

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