Honda enters connected car race (with some help from smartphones)

Honda(s hmc) on Wednesday became the latest big automaker to unveil an in-car connected infotainment system. Called HondaLink, the platform uses Harman’s(s Har) Aha technology to connect to reams of different content sources, ranging from Facebook(s fb) newsfeeds to audiobook libraries and Internet radio, all of which drivers can activate through a touch of a button or voice command.
Honda is releasing the platform this fall in the 2013 Honda Accord, but it is also customizing a special version of HondaLink for its Fit EV line of electric vehicles. The EV software will include special energy saving and monitoring features, which can be accessed remotely from the smartphone. The EV app will display the Fit’s current battery power levels. If the Fit is connected to the electrical grid, the app can remotely initiate charging as well as start the AC or heater to conserve battery power while the car is plugged in. The software will come in the new Fit EV, available for lease in California and Oregon this week.
The main entertainment features of HondaLink will lean heavily on the driver’s smartphone, not just for its lifeline to the Internet, but to actually host the applications. Aha uses a hybrid platform model: Its operating system lies in part in the dash, in part in a smartphone app, and in part in the cloud.
To activate the service, drivers download HondaLink app and then register it to their specific vehicles. From there, the driver picks from a menu of “channels” on the smartphone, which map to preset “stations” on the dashboard once the phone is linked to the car. Those channels can be anything from a text-to-speech rendering of your Facebook news feed to Pandora(s p) Internet radio presets. Aha says it has 30,000 stations to chose from. Rather than access those services directly, though, all of the content is funneled through Aha’s servers through the phone and into the dash.

The approach differs from what Ford(s f) is doing with Sync, which HondaLink most closely resembles. Ford’s(s f) Microsoft(s msft)-powered AppLink platform requires developers to design software for both the car and the smartphone. HondaLink, however, is a blank slate that purportedly hosts any application Aha throws at it. So if Honda or Aha offers a new app, it’s immediately available as a preset on the smartphone and can be accessed by the car without any new update to the phone or dash software.
It’s also worth noting that Honda is a charter member of the Venture Forum for Connected Cars, which Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) founded to promote LTE connections in vehicles. The Detroit automakers all stayed out of the venture, likely because they are eschewing embedded connectivity for their connected car platforms. It’s now obvious Honda had plans to do the same when it joined the venture. Just because HondaLink now relies on a bring-your-own-device model, doesn’t mean it won’t use embedded 4G in the future, but it’s not a good sign.