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Just Wait: Soon Your Car Will Be Dropping Calls -- and Worse

Like so many of the new in-car infotainment systems, Toyota's Entune is cloud-based -- its gateway to apps such as Bing, Pandora, iHeart Radio and Movietickets.com is via an Android, Blackberry or iPhone. The system will debut in the Toyota Prius V later this year and then spread to other models.

But Entune is going to be only as good as the cell phone it's paired with, and Toyota is in an uphill battle to create the drop-free connection that has eluded the rest of the tech world. The company's research scientists are working on it, but Toyota is a carmaker, not a software developer, so it's difficult to imagine that it's going to succeed at something every cell network in the world has failed to deliver.

Revolving around the phone
Automakers love cell-based systems because, as Jim Pisz of Toyota's advanced technology department explained to me, the technology is moving so fast it makes sense for auto entertainment to revolve around the driver's frequently updated equipment. But cell phones, even the latest ones, are problematic partners. When they drop calls, the whole system falters and an hourglass appears on the screen.

In fact, that's exactly what happened when Pisz demonstrated the Entune system here in New York outside the Plaza Hotel. The Android phone lost the connection, and we were offline until a technician rebooted. The advanced voice recognition, which can recognize casual speech, was in limbo, waiting on a cell phone to find its network.

We've all been there. Will.I.am of the Black Eyed Peas tweeted "ATT crashed----ahhh!! The worse" during the Super Bowl halftime show. Toyota admits that relying on cell service is problematic. Michelle Avary, a Toyota marketing manager, told me:

It's the last mile that's the problem. Cellular networks in general will always be a challenge to deal with. If there's no cellular connectivity, our systems just won't work. We're trying to fix that.
Intelligent switching... what's up with that?
Indeed they are. According to Avary, the solution is what she called "intelligent communications switching networks" that would allow devices "to move seamlessly in milliseconds from, say, cellular to Wi-Fi and back again with no notice to the user." The intended result: always-on connectivity.

Toyota's InfoTechnology Center in Silicon Valley is reportedly working on it. In tech-ese, Toyota says it is "aiming to achieve a cognitive-radio-system that can autonomously select frequencies and communication methods after recognizing the surrounding environment."

Avary was unable to explain how this would actually work in practice. "It's something I know only in theory," she said. But it would require some kind of seamless integration of disparate technologies that doesn't currently exist, and exactly how Wi-Fi fits into the picture is far from clear. If Toyota's engineers can make this holy grail technology work, the company should probably give up making cars entirely and just license its invaluable system to the rest of the world.

Auto infotainment is in a rapid transition that includes the demise of the in-car CD player and a migration of the consumer's music library to the cloud. Amazon's new Cloud Drive is part of that, and Mog ("millions of songs on demand") is another. That's cool -- nobody likes carrying around discs, and who wouldn't want total access, anywhere, to every song they own? But if the cloud music is inaccessible even part of the time, it will get frustrating fast. The CD is yesterday's technology, but it does have the virtue of working. Just stick it in the slot and get your music.

When the cell signal came back, Entune showed what it could do, including making movie and restaurant reservations online. It was nice, but I kept looking over at that wired-in cellphone to make sure it was still connected.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli
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