Auto Makers Need to Talk to Apple

June 28th, 2011

In this weekend’s newsletter, I gave a brief overview of the state of certain compact and mid-sized cars in different price ranges. I was actually quite impressed by the lot as far as comfort and drivability were concerned, certainly compared to the little cars I drove long, long ago. The lone sore spot, and you can take it literally, were the hugely uncomfortable seats on a 2012 Ford Fiesta, their fancy subcompact, which is based on a splashy European design. Now maybe I’m the exception, but I adjusted those seats every which way and couldn’t find the magic bullet to ease the back pain. And, in case you’re wondering, I’m not overweight. I weigh just about what I did at age 18.

Now in passing, I should mention that the salesperson didn’t seem to care. I suggested looking at a more expensive model, and he delivered a low-register grumble. So I told him to stick it and left. If anyone cares, the dealer is Power Ford in North Scottsdale, AZ. Treating potential customers that way means they don’t deserve your business, though I’m willing to accept the fact that it was just one bad apple; perhaps the rest of the sales team would be more accommodating, particularly when someone was actually considering the more expensive product.

But Ford’s biggest problem is not a subcompact with seats that may not appeal to some drivers. As I said in my earlier commentary, the MyTouch system, using technology licensed from Microsoft, is a bitter pill for some customers to swallow. It’s meant a serious drop in the J.D. Powers new car owner surveys, where users report problems with the voice activation system, touchscreens and the user interface.

But Ford isn’t alone in having a pathetic OS for their onscreen interfaces. While user friendliness varies, I’ve yet to see anything I’d classify as good, even Honda. Yes, the Accord has decent screens with crisp type for their navigation system, and the buttons are large, easily reached, and clearly labeled. But the interface needs serious work. Consider the Bluetooth “hands free” system, which mates with your mobile phone. In my brief tests, voice recognition was perfect, the caller at the other hand of the line could understand me (for once), but each and every time you enter a command, you have to press a button on the steering wheel.

So consider: You want to call a stored number, say your home, so you’d say, for example, “Call House.” You wait for the onboard system to respond by repeating the name of the party you’re calling, and it takes a few seconds for the recognition software to function. Now you have to press the button a second time to say, “Yes,” in response to whether you want to actually place that call.

This lame setup reminds me of the old fashioned CB radios, where you pushed to talk, and released to listen. Other hands free systems seem able to stay active through an entire set of commands. And, though it’s trivial, every time you have to press a button, that presents one potential minor distraction from safe driving.

Now it’s quite true that most companies have problems dealing with voice, button, and touchscreen control systems. There are many “interfaces from hell” with which to contend, yet it doesn’t seem as if the auto makers are going to the proper source to offer customers a healthy dose of user friendliness and an elegant interface.

Some years ago, there was a story that Apple was going to team with VW to build the next great auto interface. But it never happened. VW these days is on a massive cost-cutting trip to better compete on price; they were finding that premium prices proved a hard sell, even if the cars had beautiful interiors, interiors that were somewhat reminiscent of the ones in an Audi, VW’s premium brand. This cheapening process may sell more cars, but the VW “magic” is playing second fiddle. I don’t see them working with Apple to make things better.

On the other hand, what if Apple devised a car-based interface and OS that they could market to the various car companies without prejudice? They’d simply pay the license fee, and agree to install these systems on the right hardware, without making changes. It would ensure consistency, since it would mean that one car would have the same interface and control buttons as another. But it wouldn’t stop an auto maker from supporting certain features in some models, but not in others, unless you buy an optional package of some sort.

Would Apple consider such a move?

Well, you just know Apple isn’t going to build cars, even though they have a stock market capitalization that’s way higher than any single car maker, and they have more than enough cash to buy a real auto company if that’s what they wanted to do.

However, licensing an Apple OS for motor vehicles would mean that tens of millions of potential Mac and iOS customers would be exposed to the brand. That would create a halo effect of massive proportions. And, yes, I know that some new cars come equipped with manuals stored on new iPads.

Of course, all this depends not just on Apple deciding to build a car (and truck) OS and a set of appropriate apps, but on the auto makers willing to license the technology. Since Ford has already teamed with Microsoft to get their software, as imperfect as it might be, the precedent has been set. Whether Apple is interested is, of course, highly uncertain now or ever.

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7 Responses to “Auto Makers Need to Talk to Apple”

  1. Viswakarma says:

    The problem with the auto industry is that they use Micro$oft Windows-based Systems for their factory automation. And so their IT is totally wedded to Micro$oft. Further, the CEO of Ford came from Boeing. Boeing is so infected with Micro$oft, that the infection has moved to Ford.

  2. Paul Robinson says:

    Brilliant column! While we don’t own a car with any type of OS (well, save the old-fashioned kind plus a button for cruise control!), what you’re describing in current cars seems ridiculous and even potentially dangerous. The interfaces clearly need overhauling and intuitive, smart, elegant GUIs are exactly the type of thing that Apple does so well.

    Do you think they could port a version of the iOS directly to a car OS? That way, they’d leverage what people already know on their iPhones and iPads (and iPod Touches–they always get left out, the poor relation). OTOH, I suppose that would be nonsense as it is a touch-based interface and would mean a hand off the steering wheel and staring at the screen too often.

    Alas, this could mean an opening for a Google Voice OS for cars.

    What I’d like to see with such an Apple car OS would be i-device apps where people could practice them–and even simulations for learning how to drive. Although, I guess that would be more something 3rd parties would do–a Microsoft Car Flight Simulator–and more likely to involve a Wii controller or something with a steering wheel! 🙂 If Apple’s going to nix the “catch me if you can” drinking stop apps (glad they did), they could put a positive spin on their app review process with a car simulator, don’t drink and drive app.

  3. dfs says:

    Mr. Robinson touches briefly on the most important point of all: some autos (and not necessarily the cheap ones) have an in-dash unit interface so complex and klutzy that if you try to use them while driving you can get maimed or even killed because of the distraction and the length of time they require you to keep your eyes of the road. This side of the cockpit of a jet fighter, there’s probably no environment in which good ergonomics are more crucial and where bad ergonomics can do more damage. Yet the auto industry seems slow in grasping this essential point. And since Apple’s strong point is great ergonomics and industrial design, who better to design a great in-dash communications/navigation/entertainment console?

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