We first heard about Pioneer's AVIC in-car units back at CES earlier this year, but earlier today, the company was kind enough to drive a Land Rover up to my curb here in Los Angeles, and I checked out the system in action. The main unit, as you can see in the picture above, is a pretty standard touchscreen in-dash interface -- you can use it to flip between any in-car audio or video controls you have, and of course, it has a built-in GPS unit and can do all of the usual navigation things, like give you a route or check traffic.
But the interesting thing about this one is that it hooks up to your iPhone -- you can just barely see Pioneer's demo iPhone in the picture above, plugged into a dock cable that runs up through the glove compartment. And indeed, that's where your iPhone stays. The idea with this unit is that it works as an interface for your phone while driving, rather than replacing it completely.
To do that, Pioneer hooked up with two popular app-driven services on iOS. Last year, the company provided Pandora service in the car -- the music and artist information actually streams to the Pandora app on your iPhone, but Pioneer's interface controls the whole setup. This year, the new feature is a team-up with a service called Aha Radio. That company also has an app on the store (it's free, and you don't need the Pioneer unit to use it), and instead of providing streaming music, Aha provides audio feeds of lots of different online content sources, including your own Facebook and Twitter pages, local traffic and restaurant information and even streamed podcasts, completely outside of the normal iTunes ecosystem.
In practice, it worked pretty well, although all of the Aha content had all of the problems you'd expect from straight text-to-speech translation. While the computer did read out the Twitter and Facebook updates faithfully, they were obviously all out of context, and any links included didn't get read or identified at all (one update specifically said "Check out this link," and then moved on to the next tweet). That's not Aha's fault necessarily -- you shouldn't really be browsing your social feeds while driving, so just reading out text is as good as it's going to get for now. But it did kind of make the whole experience feel a little kludgy.
In fact, while it may seem strange, the streaming podcasts is the most interesting feature I found. Sure, you can always sync up podcasts in iTunes, but that takes time and requires you to sync your device and make sure everything transfers over correctly. Aha's service allows you to just listen to any of their selected podcasts whenever you want, without having to worry about getting files in the right place or on the right device. Facebook and Twitter integration are a nice gimmick, but I'd see myself using the streaming podcasts much more often.
The AVIC units aren't cheap -- even the lowest-end purchase will run you $800 plus any installation you need, and the most premium version is $1200 on a good day. For most people without major luxury aspirations, a standard car stereo will probably do, and just running these apps on your iPhone is much cheaper. The Pioneer unit doesn't do anything your iPhone doesn't do -- it just provides a more car-friendly interface.
It is still interesting to see Pioneer (among other car audio manufacturers) trying to integrate the iPhone and other smartphone systems more closely into their own systems. The Pioneer rep showing me the product today promised that "given the growth of network coverage" (both on the AT&T and Verizon networks for the iPhone), "it's safe to say that we will continue to access more content" from the smartphone itself. These devices in our pockets are already more powerful than car stereos have ever been, so it's easy to see a future where everything revolves around content and information directly from the smartphone itself.