I recently made my annual pilgrimage to the Portland International Auto Show and walked away with the same conclusion I arrived at year ago, and the year before, and the year before that — the auto industry grasps technology about as well as a first grader understand astrophysics.
The luxury car market has become obsessed with LCD screens. Gone are the analog speed and rpm dials, replaced with massively stretched 1 DIN LCD dashboards. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen when that screen dies at night while cruising at 70 mph on the highway, or the cache displays an inaccurate speed. The marketing teams of the luxury clan have clearly jumped into the LCD life boat, screaming at the potential buyer that the more LCD's, loaded with more features, dazzling colors, and a host menu's, means true luxury.
The middle-class car market still delivers plenty of technology, its just lurking behind less obvious interfaces, cost cutting measures or half-baked solutions. Connect your iPhone via Bluetooth and presto, the first song in your iTunes library will just start playing. Did the car know I wanted that song, or is this simply a default mode?
Does the car really take that long to interface with my contacts list? Why can't I listen to a YouTube video via the car's Bluetooth, but I can listen to a podcast? Why does the iPhone connection wheel keep spinning? Oh, it's just that the car needs to get use to my Pacific Northwest accent, and then it will understand my commands? The list of struggling technology trying to keep pace with, and take over, the iPhone is endless and equally painful to experience at an auto show, let alone in a purchased vehicle, day after day.
On the surface, the technologies appear hip and cool, and they may very well be the driving force in selling new cars today. But ask anyone about how their car technology solutions actually work, and at some point you'll hear back a high priced package that will have you mutter profanity to yourself. Technology looks new, fun and exciting at the dealership, and people are excited in hearing what they want to hear, but the flat out truth is that once a buyer spends a few weeks with their new car, they learn that their tech package, and the industry at large, is a decade behind the times in how people expect these solutions should work. It would be like buying a computer and upon arriving home you discover your computer comes with a CRT display (not an LCD screen), RAM topping out at 2GB and a parallel port for a printer. Is this 2004 or 2014?
Amazingly enough, I have the solution. In fact, so does everyone that owns an iPhone, and it's really quite simple, but only a handful within the auto industry are embracing the answer. Auto Industry: Get the car out of the way between me and my iPhone!
General Motors is actually putting Siri Eyes Free on center stage in a few of their vehicles, but the integration is random across their lineup. Honda is just beginning to dip their toes into Apple's auto solutions, but there are signs that soon (in car terms, that's one or two years), many aspects of your iPhone will be mirrored nearly pixel for pixel onto the center stack display, allowing the driver and passengers to use an interface they know like the back of their hand.
Clearly, letting the advanced technology of the iPhone become the brains of a car's tech package removes the customers need to buy built-in high priced tech packages. Removing high-margin tech out of vehicles isn't what the auto industries marketing departments and bean counters have in mind, but if Apple can put cracks in the industries stodgy walls, they can quickly fall like dominos.
For all the technology ineptness going on within the auto industry, there are some bright spots that have developed as the mechanical minds have been forced to embraced the future. Safety features, such as blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, or even auto sensing windshield wipers, deliver the opportunity for the driver to keep their eyes on the road. At least this is the goal. At this point the safety features simply afford the driver more time to mess with the car's screwed up technology package.
A message to the auto industry is simply this: Get out of the way of my iPhone and stick to building a great car, and Cupertino will deliver the tech.
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