Fiat Chrysler Automobiles gave the world a peek at its next-generationinfotainment system when it debuted in the . Uconnect has been one of my favorite infotainment suites for quite a while, thanks to its overall ease of use, solid features and, for the most part, responsive performance. Uconnect 5 promises to be faster, stronger and smarter than ever before, but it'll be some time before it officially becomes available in the 2021 Pacifica later this year.
In the meantime, I talked to Jin Palmer, FCA's head of infotainment and feature planning, and Vince Galante, Uconnect's chief designer, for a closer look at what exactly makes this tech tick.
"One of the first things we did was to grow the team," Galante told me via video chat this week. "We have transportation and product designers, people who are experts in interaction, and people from the entertainment and gaming industries that can show us new ways to use three dimensions to visualize things. We also have people on staff with web and mobile experience and people with psychology backgrounds, so there's a really wide range of skill sets that help prepare us for this new world and the things we're working on going forward."
Updated hardware, Android-powered software
FCA already confirmed that Uconnect 5 will be based on much more potent hardware: The new Atlantis architecture should be five times faster than the current system, packing a more powerful processor, 6GB of RAM and up to 64GB of solid state storage. The additional processing and graphical horsepower helps Uconnect 5 to push three times as many pixels as before -- up to ultra-HD resolution for large screens such as the 10.1-inch display in the upcoming 2021 Pacifica or the big ol' 12.3-inch screen in the Ram 1500.
Uconnect 5 also features support for multiple displays, allowing the central infotainment suite to also power a digital instrument cluster, rear-seat entertainment or other secondary displays.
Like the current tech, the fifth-gen Uconnect system will include 4G LTE connectivity and will take better advantage of that connection with enhanced capability for over-the-air updates to vehicle firmware. FCA previously hinted that the hardware is built with an eventual 5G wireless upgrade path in mind, though we don't yet know what that roadmap will look like.
Smartphone integration reaches the next level with improved Bluetooth radios that allow two phones to connect simultaneously -- which should come in handy for families -- as well as wireless support for bothand . FCA will continue to support USB connections for media, data and fast charging with both USB Type-A (up to 2.4 amps) and Type-C (up to 3.0 amps) ports available.
Behind the hardware is a new software platform. Uconnect 5 is now based on Android Oreo, which enables a new level of flexibility and comes with an established ecosystem of content ripe for adaptation. Android can be stretched and squeezed onto everything from wrist watches to smart coffee makers, so the platform's inherent flexibility allowed Uconnect's design team to build an interface that can adapt to fit standard aspect ratios, ultra-wide screens and even portrait displays without having to reinvent the wheel, giving FCA's cabin designers tremendous freedom over the shape and size of the screen.
Meanwhile, software developers around the world are already familiar with creating software for Android, which should make it easier for them to adapt their apps for use on the road and bring them to the Uconnect 5 Market, FCA's dashboard app store.
Simplify and add lightness
"If you look at all of the generations leading up to Uconnect 5, you'll see that it's been an evolution," Galante said. "We really are proud of the Uconnect system, the ease and how much it is a pleasure for our customers to use. So, we didn't want to totally blow it up, but we definitely wanted to make sure that it had a fresh new look."
The new look is flatter, with fewer gradients and 3D-look buttons, and more clean outlines with dark, solid backgrounds and fills. Galante explained how this aesthetic also comes with a bonus to system responsiveness.
"The solid backgrounds can be built with code rather than image files, so when the system is actually loading each of the [buttons], it's not loading a picture; it's just loading numbers, which makes it respond that much faster. We did a test at one point and the file size of those buttons was about 10 times smaller. When you replicate that across the system, this new style of design, not only is it more modern, but it also allows the system to be more responsive."
Specs and benchmarks are great, but ease-of-use is the most important aspect of any infotainment suite. "78% of customers said, specifically, simple-to-use infotainment systems, which Uconnect has been known for, is super important for them. It's one of the most important factors," Palmer explained. "Not just having the right technology, but it's also their daily usage."
With that in mind, most of the practical changes to Uconnect aim to maintain its simplicity and make it easier to use. Many of these tweaks are subtle, requiring a closer look to notice. There's a new font with more considered spacing that's supposedly easier to read. More attention has been given to visual hierarchy, using what Galante calls "virtual depth" to pull important elements -- like the main area -- to the foreground and center of attention with brighter and bolder tones than the secondary zones -- such as the status bars -- which are slightly dimmed.
Front and center is the main area, occupied by whatever the currently active function is, which has now been subdivided into new subcategory tabs. The media screen, for example, features tabs for audio sources, what's currently playing, browse and audio controls, while the apps screen has tabs for favorites, recent, categories and all. Users can swipe anywhere on the screen to switch between these tabs, which makes it easy to move broadly through the interface without actually looking at the display.
The menu and status bars along the bottom and top edges, respectively, make return appearances. The top bar gains new interactive elements in the form of four quick access toggles that users can tap to, for example, control the temperature, Wi-Fi hotspot access, user profile or vehicle cameras. Both of the bars can be customized easily by dragging and dropping icons where desired.
The bottom bar now features a home button -- noteworthy because previous generations didn't feature a true home screen. This central hub features up to five pages of widgets that can be chosen, organized or deleted as you see fit. By choosing wisely and matching the status bar, menu bar, and home screen to your individual needs, FCA tells me that you'll be able to reach your most commonly accessed features with a single tap.
Beyond just making life easier for engineers and developers, Uconnect 5's move to Android may be a bigger deal than you, the user, may think. The move to Android means that FCA's engineers have also had to rebuild many of the core infotainment functions -- navigation, media player and so on -- as Android apps and they've made some upgrades while they were at it.
Navigation is now powered by TomTom, rather than the previous Garmin system, and now claims faster route calculations, new search and input text predictions and connected real-time traffic information. Offline voice command is now powered by Nuance with improved support for natural-language recognition, which means you won't need to memorize as many specific commands.
With the aid of the 4G connection, Uconnect 5 also gains Amazon Alexa integration. This integration allows even more robust cloud voice command with deep integrations with the onboard apps. For example, you can say, "Alexa, take me to Hilltop Mall" and have the correct address dropped right into the navigation system. Or say, "Alexa, play fun music" to fire up the media player. Alexa functionality extends outside of the car with support for things like controlling smart home devices (like a garage door opener) or remote monitoring or commanding the vehicle -- for example, remote start or unlocking the doors.
Momentarily donning my speculation hat, I can see how this could just be the tip of the iceberg enabled by Android's built-in app linking functionality and could open up a whole new level of communication and control between apps, including third-party apps, in much the same way the apps on a phone can. After all, in the previous example of Alexa, working with navigation is just two Android apps deep linking to each other, so it stands to reason that Yelp could similarly send information to navigation or Alexa could call up songs in Spotify.
Stay tuned for a closer look when Uconnect 5 hits the road later this year. The next-generation infotainment tech will be found in the dashboard of the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica and, eventually, spread throughout the next generation of FCA vehicles.