OEM Infotainment Systems: Navigation and Beyond

Take a look at these infotainment and telematics systems

Vehicle manufacturers have been combining entertainment systems and informational systems for years, creating a type of unified hardware that is sometimes referred to as an infotainment system. Every system is different, but they typically provide access to the audio sources like radio and internet radio, navigation, points of interest, diagnostic information about the vehicle, and a whole raft of telematics features.

First There Was GPS, then There Was Infotainment

The global positioning system (GPS) was initially developed during the 1970s, but it didn't become fully operational until 1994. Shortly after the system became available, a number of automakers took advantage of the technology. Earlier attempts at original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in-vehicle navigation systems had met with failure, because they depended on dead reckoning navigation.

The first original equipment (OE) GPS navigation systems were relatively primitive by modern standards, but the technology progressed quite rapidly. When a more accurate GPS signal was made available to civilians in the early 2000s, OE navigation systems became ubiquitous almost overnight.

Today, OE entertainment, navigation, and telematics systems form the hearts of many highly-integrated infotainment systems. These powerful infotainment systems often take charge of the climate controls, provide access to vital information about the condition of the engine and other systems, and typically offer some type of navigation option.

While some systems don't offer navigation, that option is typically offered in a separate package or as an optional upgrade.

OE Navigation and Infotainment Options

Automotive technology tends to lag behind general consumer electronics, and OE manufacturers tend to hold on to old technology longer. Infotainment systems tend to follow that same general pattern, but these systems still receive refreshes, updates, and sometimes even complete overhauls with each new model year.

Here's a general overview of the main OE entertainment, navigation, telematics, and infotainment systems:

Ford: Sync and MyFord Touch

Ford Sync 3 in a Mustang.

 Ford

Ford has used a couple of integrated infotainment systems to handle communications, entertainment, telematics, and navigation. Their first infotainment system was called Ford Sync, and the second generation is referred to as MyFord Touch or Sync 2. These versions were both powered by an embedded version of Microsoft Windows that was designed specifically for use in automotive applications.

Ford Sync 3 is powered by the QNX operating system from Blackberry, and it maintains much of the same functionality. It includes Alexa-powered voice commands, voice navigation, traffic information, and even allows you to control your smart home from your car.

Other features include Sync AppLink, which allows you to control some mobile apps with your voice, and compatibility with Android Auto. It also features traditional entertainment options, like radio and internet radio, turn by turn navigation, and various other infotainment and telematics functionality.

General Motors: Intellilink and OnStar

Chevrolet MyLink displayed in a Chevy Malibu.

Chevrolet

General Motors offers telematics features and on-board navigation through its OnStar system. A one-year subscription to OnStar is typically offered to new GM owners, after which users are required to pay a monthly fee.

In addition to the voice-controlled OnStar, GM also has also used in-dash GPS and infotainment systems like Chevy MyLink and Intellilink that use information from a built-in hard drive. These systems can be updated with map data from the GM Navigation Disc program. The hard drive can also be used to store digital music files.

Honda: HondaLink

HondaLink displayed in a Honda Passport

Honda 

Honda was one of the first OEMs to experiment with on-board navigation, and it actually worked on a system based on dead-reckoning system in the early 1980s. Modern Honda navigation systems use hard drives to store map data, and new maps can be downloaded from the Internet. Some Honda GPS systems also include a lifetime subscription to a live traffic data service.

Honda uses the HondaLink system, which provides infotainment, telematics, and navigation features. Integrating with a phone app, it allows users to receive maintenance alerts, access cloud-based information, and more.

Both GM and Honda have used Gracenote in their infotainment systems, which is a service that can recognize artist information by examining song files. That information is then shown on the unified display screen.

Toyota: Entune and Audio Multimedia System

Toyota multimedia system displayed in a Yaris.

Toyota offers several in-dash navigation systems that are all built on the Entune platform. One option includes an integrated HD radio, and another model is capable of displaying DVD movies on its touchscreen. These systems can also be paired with bluetooth devices for hands-free use.

some Toyota audio multimedia systems also include integration with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Alexa, and other useful services and features. The Toyota app provides access to connected services, and some models also support telematics like remote unlock, remote start, and more.

BMW: idrive

BMW iDrive Navigation
BMW's iDrive is an example of a highly integrated OEM GPS system. Photo © Jeff Wilcox

BMW offers navigation through an infotainment system it calls iDrive. Since iDrive controls most of the secondary systems, BMW GPS navigation units are highly integrated. In addition to navigation, iDrive is also used to operate the climate controls, audio, communications and other systems.

Volkswagen

Volkswagen Travel Link with integrated Sirius radio.

Volkswagen 

Volkswagen also offers optional touchscreen navigation, which is integrated into the entertainment center. These systems are slightly different in each vehicle, but they typically offer Bluetooth pairing, live traffic data and other common features. Travel Link is one system they have used, and they have also had systems with app integration.

Kia

Kia UVO controls
UVO systems include both touchscreen and physical controls. Photo courtesy of Kia Motors America

Kia's main infotainment and telematic offering is UVO, which stands for "your voice." This voice-controlled system system includes components like CD players, radios, and a and built-in digital music jukebox, and it's capable of interfacing with Bluetooth-enabled phones.

The first UVO systems didn't have built-in navigation, requiring owners to select between UVO or a basic navigation package. Today you can get UVO with or without navigation and various advanced telematics features.

Convenience vs. Usability

Each OEM infotainment system is somewhat different, but all of the major automakers have moved towards highly integrated infotainment systems in recent years. That high level of integration makes them incredibly convenient, but it has also led to usability issues. According to a study performed by J.D. Power and Associates, most consumer complaints about OEM navigation systems are related to ease of use.

Since these infotainment systems tend to be integrated with climate controls, radios and other devices, the learning curve can be relatively steep. The iDrive system has been singled out as a major distraction, because it tends to pull a driver's eyes away from the road.

According to the J.D. Power and Associates study, 19% of OEM GPS navigation users were unable to locate a desired menu or screen, 23% had difficulty with voice recognition and 24% claimed that their devices provided incorrect routes.

Some systems received higher marks than others, such as the Garmin device that's available in Dodge Chargers. Garmin is a popular aftermarket GPS manufacturer, and the navigation platform it provides for the Charger is reportedly much easier to use than many other OEM systems.

Navigating the Options

Since infotainment systems are so deeply integrated into most new vehicles, you may want to check a few of them out before you buy your next new car or truck. GPS navigation may not be that high on your list of priorities, but you're essentially stuck with what you have after you buy a new vehicle.

Each infotainment system also offers a laundry list of various features, and some, like UVO, are even designed around a multimedia experience rather than navigation. In that case, you'll have the option to go with the aftermarket GPS unit of your choice.