One of the best infotainment systems gets five times quicker and has future autonomy on its mind, thanks in part to game designers and Carnegie Mellon gurus.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles may be seen as something of an unlikely leader in the world of automotive tech, and yet, that's exactly what the company has been for years in the infotainment realm. Perhaps it shouldn't be that unexpected -- after all, the automaker is best-known for creating simple, rugged, powerful and easy-to-understand products such as the Jeep Wrangler, Dodge Challenger and Ram 1500. Those very performance characteristics are the attributes that have made the company's Unconnect infotainment systems perennial favorites among Roadshow staffers. Today's Uconnect isn't the flashiest or most feature-rich system, but its intuitive touchscreen user experience and snappy response time has kept it high on our list of most recommended hardware.
Now, FCA is announcing Uconnect 5, a next-generation architecture with new componentry built on Android's automotive operating system. The new system promises to be much faster, more feature-rich and updatable on the fly using over-the-air firmware technology. Naturally, larger, higher-resolution screens are also part of the mix, with FCA touting up to 15 million pixels in Ultra HD on a 12.3-inch display and support for portrait, square and landscape formats, as well as multiple screens.
Uconnect 5 will look familiar to anyone who's used the systems in any of FCA's current offerings, albeit with sharper, flatter graphics and layout changes to accommodate those new features. The company has eschewed adding any sort of separate multicontroller or mouse, continuing to rely on touchscreen inputs, steering-wheel switchgear and voice commands instead. A new widget-based home screen serves as the hub of the system, adding functions like user-defined profiles (five, plus a valet mode) and Alexa home-to-car integration. Perhaps most promisingly, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are new, the latter being features that have largely been the preserve of select European luxury brands up until recently.
FCA's UConnect 5 packs OTA updates, wireless CarPlay and is 5G ready
Other headline-worthy features include a new version of TomTom GPS navigation that includes single-box address search and OTA updatable maps, improved voice commands with casual speech recognition and dual-phone connectivity allowing for the driver's mobile to be used for one function (e.g. calls) and a passenger's phone to be used for another (e.g. streaming music selection) simultaneously.
Speaking of streaming music, SiriusXM with 360L is part of Uconnect 5. 360L builds on the satellite radio stations you're likely familiar with by adding on-demand streaming features including personalized stations powered by Pandora. FCA was first to add 360L in its 2020 Ram 1500 pickup, followed by select General Motors models, but this technology's inclusion in Uconnect 5 suggests it will be available in many more cars, SUVs and trucks soon.
Hardware-wise, UConnect 5 will rely on a new Atlantis architecture featuring a 50K MIP chip backed by 6GB of RAM and up to 64GB of flash storage. All-in, FCA says the new system is five times faster than its predecessor. The system also includes a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot that supports up to eight devices. FCA says the new hardware is designed to be upgradable to 5G, though officials Roadshow spoke with at an embargoed media preview declined to say when that functionality might arrive or if such tech will be backwards-compatible with existing Uconnect 5 head units.
"The system you're going to experience in the next few months is more device-like than automotive," said Ralph Gilles, FCA's head of design. "You're talking MIP speeds that are as fast as your iPhone, if not faster in some cases," he told reporters. In order to develop the new system, FCA had to go on a hiring binge, reaching beyond traditional infotainment programmers to court everyone from video game developers to Carnegie Mellon HMI experts. According to Gilles, the team went from four or five people to today's staff of "around 30."
In other key areas of potential futureproofing, an FCA press statement points out that Uconnect 5's new Android OS has built-in allowances for "autonomous driving initiatives," including a Telematics Box Module designed to securely transfer the massive amounts of data that future AVs are expected to generate. Uconnect 5 also makes allowances for EVs, including dynamic range mapping and enhanced charging station identification.
With the switch to Android OS, there figures to be a massive increase in the amount of apps available for Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Maserati and Ram owners, as well as significant expansion of available services via the Uconnect Market, which will allow for commerce transactions like ordering (and paying for) food or parking.
Simply put, there's an avalanche of new features to look forward to in Uconnect 5, but ultimately, the intuitiveness and stability of FCA's new UX will determine whether this next-gen infotainment platform is a winner, or if it's too complex for its own good.