My Car Won't Talk To Me

“Play The Beatles.”

“I didn’t quite get that”

“Play the Beatles.”

“I didn’t quite get that.”

“Play The Rolling Stones.” Because you never know -- maybe my new car audio head unit has developed nuanced taste and is sick of playing Revolver.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” my wife chimes in from the passenger seat. Because what I really need is Siri and my wife’s voices competing to frustrate me more.

“Call my wife.”

“I didn’t quite get that.”

“Well, apparently she doesn’t want to talk to you either,” I tell my wife.

The new car audio system has dumbed down Siri, who ordinarily has no trouble playing songs from my library or calling my wife. The problem is the obscure and maddening interface of the latest affront to design decency -- the car audio center. While new car buyers at the high end may be salivating over the full-screen displays and touchscreen of upcoming models, the overwhelming majority of mobile enthusiasts like me will have to suffer through either low-end phone integrations or doing as I did and upgrading their old car’s head unit.



In our family, we suffer both low-end and mid-range issues. My wife’s year-old Mazda3 has a standard-issue audio system that can connect to our iPhones via Bluetooth or USB and pretty much just stream whatever is playing on the mobile device. I should say that the Mazda can play her music and audiobooks. We have yet to figure out how to switch control in-car across two devices. And my iPhone 5s stopped seeing her BT connection after the first attempt at pairing.

Hardly matters, because the single line interface is such a nightmare to traverse anyway that it feels like programming a Casio scientific calculator circa 1983. The on-screen nomenclature is unclear to begin with, and the one-way navigation of the menus forces the user to ratchet through every selection to make her way back to the right setting.

We have given up on tweaking all of this, so now advanced technology has bestowed upon us a new set of tasks that we perform ritualistically upon getting in her car together. The audio system automatically picks up her iPhone and the current romance or cozy mystery she has been listening to while running. Crap! Now she has lost her place in her audio book. The only way we can override using her iPhone (because mine has the unlimited data plan for streaming anywhere) is to plug my iPhone into the USB port. Fine. But for some reason my iPhone invariably starts with a Megadeath track my daughter purchased on my account five or six years ago when she was going through that headbanger phase. I have no idea why or how it does this. And since my iTunes library is in the iCloud, I am I-inconvenienced every time we plug into the car audio system.

Considering my daughter’s many musical phases (Emo, screamo, et. al), I am probably lucky Megadeath is my permanent car audio intro. It could have been country music, which was the only one of her taste phases I banned from in-car playing back in the teen years.

And so I had high hopes for upgrading my own aging audio system for the Mini Cooper. Back in 2005 when I bought the car, a $100 add-on installed by the Mini/BMW dealer put me at the cutting edge for the day. Years before the iPhone, I was handing off my podcast listening from PC to iPod to car audio as I moved media relatively seamlessly from home to car to gym. Until Apple switched to new connector types, which made the whole setup permanently dodgy. When we switched over to diamond connectors I was jerry-rigging connections with adapters for a while. At some point a couple of years ago, however, the entire seamless skein unraveled permanently for me, and I was back to burning playlists on CDs, a stack of which filled my diminutive Mini glove compartment.

“What does ‘Haunting’ mean -- or 'Happy' for that matter?” my wife reads from the perma-marker scrawl on the CDs. Advanced tech has thrown us back to the Neanderthal in-car age of disc-swapping circa 2000.

Once I realized that the Mini Cooper was not being traded in any time soon, I decided that an audio upgrade was long overdue. I went for an iPhone-ready Pioneer that purports to have full BT and voice recognition support.

So they say. The obscure interface for this unit reminds me of digital cameras -- too many choices buried in trees of menus coursing through a severely limited interface. The BT pairing for me went fine, but apparently managing two phones is a real choke point for in-car audio. The only way to swap control to another paired phone is to fully shut my phone’s connectivity off. Navigating iPhone content on this thing involves so much button mashing and monitoring of the one line screen that I may as well be driving and texting. The nomenclature for menus and functions is a Babel of gibberish and abbreviations designed to accommodate the small screen.

On the other hand, the LED does display in any of tens of thousands of colors. So there is that.

And of course the voice recognition that could serve as a shortcut through this interface nightmare just flat out does not work. Even though the BT and microphone passthrough for voice calls does indeed work, the “I’m Listening” prompt for Siri is a lie.

“I don’t think she is really listening to you,” my wife reminds me. “But I am…always.”

Wife -1, Siri - 0

3 comments about "My Car Won't Talk To Me".
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  1. George Simpson from George H. Simpson Communications, September 16, 2014 at 10:46 a.m.

    Your wife listening to you....that's big, bro

  2. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations, September 16, 2014 at 11 a.m.

    LOL- dude, get a Mini Cooper -

  3. Kathryn Gorges from Kathryn Gorges Courses, September 16, 2014 at 6:23 p.m.

    Great post! And THAT is why a company like Apple has more fans than one that's interested in offering a thousands of colors on the screen: they are focused on the user experience. I'm hoping one day the engineers that run those companies making the stupid audio equipment are overthrown by ux designers that truly care about making this an incredibly good experience.

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