CES 2010: Continental shows Android based head unit

Continental is preparing an in-car navigation and entertainment system that runs on Google’s Android operating system with the goal of putting it into production by 2013. The operating system is designed specifically for mobile platforms and is increasingly installed on cell phones. Using Android would give automakers access to thousands of applications that have already been developed for mobile phones. While Android was only on two percent of smartphones sold in 2009, some analysts predict it will be on 18 percent of smartphones sold in 2012, accounting for 94 million units.

Continental says that all of the 20,000 applications currently offered in Google’s app store will run on its system, named AutoLinQ, when the car is in park. To allay safety concerns, manufacturers and Continental would work together to certify programs that could be used while driving. Continental plans to release a software developer kit by spring 2010 that will allow programmers to access vehicle information and functions. By the end of 2010, they intend to have a handful of core applications along with a more polished graphical interface to show to interested automakers.

In Las Vegas, Continental gave us a sneak preview of both first- and second-generation demonstration units. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos this early in the development process, but we did experience a number of the system’s features firsthand.

To compliment the in-car experience, Continental has developed prototypes of both a mobile-phone-based interface and an Internet portal for interacting with the car. For speed, reliability, and the widespread acceptance, Continental has used text messaging as a primary means for interacting with the car. From an airport runway, a user would be able to query their car, “Are my doors locked?” If the car reports the doors are unlocked, that person could then instruct the vehicle to lock the doors and would receive a confirmation text message.

Of course, mobile phone applications will likely be a part of the package as well. Using a Motorola Droid, a Continental engineer located the car via GPS while the screen became a radar-like display, showing the car’s position in relation to the phone.

A web-based interface would allow owners to customize their settings from a home computer. Rather than scrolling through cryptic menus in the car, a computer would offer a better interface to choose mundane settings like how long headlights stay on after the car is shut down. The computer interface would also be where applications for the in-car head unit would be selected. The programs would then be downloaded the next time the car was started.

The experience from the car is a fairly normal touch screen operation, with the addition of next-generation Internet streaming for movies and music. Continental will customize the hardware for an automaker’s budget and desired performance, which means the data connection could come from a built-in chip or a mobile phone connected via Bluetooth. Engineers are also toying with a terminal mode for their head unit, where the touch screen would merely be an extension of a connected mobile phone performing all of the computing.

Continental is aiming to put AutoLinQ into a production vehicle by 2012 or 2013, but hasn’t yet announced which automakers have expressed interest.