Commentary

New Car Connectivity...At The Bleeding Edge of 1986

“My car says hello to me,” my wife crows in one of those increasingly frequent moments of tech pride. As longtime readers will know, my better half is infamously tech-averse. Until recently. She has embraced her fitness app to run farther and harder. And now she has a brand-new Mazda3 that greets her and listens to her. “I have Bluetooth now,“ she brags, as I refrain from breaking the news that she has had Bluetooth for a number of years without having any particular use for it. But by some cruel ironic twist my formerly app-phobic wife is now making better use of her iPhone to optimize her health than I, and has a car that doesn’t require cable fumbling and adapter hookups (like my 2005 Mini) in order to render a simple playlist. “I can listen to one of my books as I walk in the car and the speaker system picks it up right where I left off,” she says in wonder and delight.

This is really starting to bug me.

The curious thing about her in-car audio system and iPhone integration is that it is fairly standard 2013 tech that somehow looks like a PC interface circa 1986. The fact that the car says hello in much the same way an Apple Mac did 30 years ago says something about the rudimentary state of telematics. The various dials and buttons that operate the scrunched screen with fat digitized letters, ill-explained icons and on-screen shorthand, feel ready to interact with Matthew Broderick in "War Games."

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It only encourages us to use the iPhone itself as the main interface for managing things. I know that there are much more sophisticated interfaces in higher-end cars out there, but even these models leave me with the same impression that I get from the interfaces on cable and satellite TV boxes. We are three or four decades into interactive interface design on PCs, laptops and devices. Why is it that the next frontiers of interactivity -- the TV set and the automobile -- seem to have learned nothing after 30 years of software and interface design? I don’t think I am alone in following the impulse to use my phone or tablet to control these devices rather than suffer the interfaces that these companies are devising for themselves.

And apparently I am not alone. A new study by Gfk finds car infotainment interfaces in luxury models remarkably inadequate. “We get the impression that this treadmill of innovation, safety needs and complexity reduction pushes the usability of basic features into the background,” the report finds. The company finds that even fundamentals like GPS and directions are obfuscated by weird labeling schemes and extraneous information that only confuse users.

The industry can’t decide whether using a rotary dial or touch input is most appropriate to a car. Touch interfaces are challenged by car movement and the basic imprecision and distraction associated with tapping the screen while driving. But a rotary dial system is not much better because it requires obtuse navigation through menu structures that every manufacturer handles differently. My car may be able to speak to my wife, but learning how to speak to the car is a much steeper climb.

The report shows many instances where the interface gives ambiguous and imprecise directions for connecting devices and other basics that really shouldn’t be this difficult. For people who have had three or four years of smartphone and tablet interactions, the sheer dumbness of many car interfaces has to be dumbfounding. Between the two of us, my wife has an advanced computer science degree and is a programmer, while I have been working with and reviewing devices for 20 years. We spent more than a few minutes trying to figure out how to pair my iPhone's Bluetooth with the dashboard simply because the menu trees on the audio system were so unclear. As Gfk points out, these manufacturers have to start taking into account the interfaces that are already familiar to users from years of interactivity with other devices.

There are a lot of incumbent and vested interests poised to wage war over controlling the in-car experience. The car manufacturers’ reluctance to hand the dashboard over to an Apple or other mobile entity is understandable. But the fact remains that most consumers will tend to see their car media as an extension of their existing platforms -- especially their smartphones. There is a lot of frustration and growing pain ahead.

And in the short term, the emergence of even simple phone-docking connections raises immediate issues of bandwidth. Tentatively, I ask my wife whether the music she was playing via the phone-to-car connection was coming from downloaded or streaming via Pandora. She is still on the lowest-end data plan for her iPhone because she rarely uses the data channel. I was imagining needing yet another $25 data charge to the already massive monthly wireless bill to support her newfound tech savvy. “I don’t have Pandora on my phone,” she says. “This is the music I transferred.” Dodged that bullet. When I connected my iPhone to the system and played her own well-curated Grateful Dead station via Pandora she was thrilled. “I can do that?”

Well, not yet. This extended car connectivity raises a whole host of possible expenses. With Pandora replacing the radio or downloaded tunes, we may need to go to their premium product to get beyond the free access cap. And then, of course, there is the problem of overall wireless data usage when we start streaming during drive time. I have unlimited data usage grandfathered into my line, but no one else in my family does. The last thing any of us needs is an additional in-car data plan.

7 comments about "New Car Connectivity...At The Bleeding Edge of 1986".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 28, 2013 at 4:21 a.m.

    The best hitech feature in my car is that Google automatically messages me with the best route home each day, allowing for the current traffic. I think this has saved me 10 minutes per day, since it started. Only thing is, this is not "in" my car, the message actually comes to my Android phone before I leave. And that's the point - phones advance much quicker than cars and you don't want information like that limited to when you're in the car, because if there's really bad traffic I want to wait half-an-hour for it to clear. So put all the cleverness in the phone and just a docking station and sound system in the car.

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 28, 2013 at 4:30 a.m.

    One final point: this is not mainly about media. Modern cars collect a lot of sophisticated information about their internal state, but only display a miniscule part of this via obscure warning icons on the dash. When my turbocharger blew, the car computer knew a lot, but I had no useful information or advice on what action to take. I would have been safer and could potentially have reduced the garage bill if all the engine monitoring data had been synced to my phone, so I could get advice from a technical website of my choice.

  3. larry price from tmpg, June 28, 2013 at 9:40 a.m.

    Steve- great article. If both those cars are manual transmissions (or at least the Mini) you are buying cool cars.

  4. Steve Smith from Mediapost, June 28, 2013 at 9:58 a.m.

    @Peter. Your point about the data the car itself casts off is well taken. the auto sector could be an important source of very helpful information to the consumer and to the mobile ecosystem if these entities partnered up wisely.

    @Larry. My wife will be glad to hear her car choice is 'cool.' We are both totally averse to automatics, and the range of available manuals is narrowing. Putting an automatic transmission on a Mini? Not on my watch.

  5. Jim Morrison from Jim Morrison, LLC., June 28, 2013 at 10:40 a.m.

    Steve, you've exampled what happens when technology comes before functionality - for the sake of technology. Knobs, buttons, and switches, or physical context, matter to a driver where shape=function. The smart phone touch screen UI was rushed into dashboards. One reason: to meet consumer demands for connectivity over horsepower. A hybrid approach will naturally emerge.

  6. Michael Foster from OTR Global, June 28, 2013 at 4:54 p.m.

    @Steve. I have a lot of time for anything you write, Steve, but I have never found myself more in agreement than I am right now. Automatics and small cars go together like toothpaste and orange juice.

  7. Jon Latzer from TuneIn, June 29, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.

    Steve, I am empathetic to your plight as I have two USB hookups to my my 160GB iPod and my iPhone in my Toyota It allows me to have two powerful libraries at my fingertips (I have an 80K iTunes library). I think the automotive companies know their UI's are somewhat "behind the times" but they are moving quickly to address that. The 2014 and 2015 models will have better telematics and infotainment systems and they are heavily invested in making their systems effective for consumers. Unfortunately, the systems are not standardized in the way mobile interfaces are. Pandora, iHeart, Slacker and TuneIn will all be available inn an App structure as with other info and entertainment based Apps so access to content will be easier.
    BTW...tell Mrs. Smith to download the TuneIn App on her iPhone and she can access a variety of Grateful Dead channels including my favorite- Shakedown Stream from WMVY.

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