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Apple and Your Car

From the earliest days of the iPod, you could easily sync it with your motor vehicle’s audio system, or at least in some models, usually by connecting a USB cable. But it took years before you could wirelessly sync an iPhone or another mobile handset via Bluetooth, and, to this very day, not all models support this feature as standard issue. This is particularly true of entry-level cars, where you may have to buy a premium radio or navigation package to get what you need.

Even then, please don’t assume the feature will work properly. I’ve had three cars in the past decade that promised some sort of Bluetooth capability. While syncing with a mobile handset is usually pretty reliable, don’t expect voice recognition to always succeed. More often than not, anything more complicated than a name from a stored address book will be misinterpreted by the voice recognition system. So you end up having to repeat a phone number two times, three times, or even more frequently before you’re recognized. That’s true even if you speak in a casual, conversational voice and say “zero” for the number “0.”

My Honda Accord, for example, features the company’s “HandsFree” system, which is fairly decent, but far from perfect. But I’ve  tried voice recognition on far more expensive vehicles with even less success. No need to mention the brand names, such problems are par for the course.

As for the rest of the Honda’s audio system, it’s actually quite decent, although the interface is ancient. The radio, for example, sports a single-lined LED display, shades of the 1980s. The bitmapped display on the onboard navigation display, which stores data on a DVD, is more 1990s issue. But there are physical buttons for most critical functions, such as the climate control system, and even radio presets. Indeed, some vehicles require that you go through some horrendous menus just to store your favorite stations. Absurd? You bet.

Now Honda has updated the entire system for the 2013 Accord. In a brief test drive, I found it both good and bad. If you get the navigation system, you have two LCD displays, and some of the information is duplicated. Unfortunately, there are fewer buttons, which works against simplicity.

The totally redesigned 2014 Mazda6, the first version built without help from Ford, has a fairly decent, workable audio and navigation system. You have onscreen buttons to store and select radio station presets, and most functions are fairly easy to access.

Having too many features can be a bad thing, as Ford learned with the MyFord Touch system, developed in partnership with Microsoft. Ford’s reliability record has sharply declined because of constant defects with the audio and navigation components. Apps crash and freeze, and the touch screens may fail to recognize your fingers. Yes, Ford continues to push updates, but some problems persist.

In passing, I wonder how many accidents are caused by drivers frustrated by fiddling with temperamental computerized systems that don’t recognize voice commands or taps.

Apple has been trying to make inroads into the audio business. Some cars, including the Chevrolet Sonic, are boasting of Siri Eyes Free integration, which puts that “lady” from your iPhone and iPad in your car. It’s not a full-featured system, but manages such things as phone calls and navigation.

For iOS 7, Apple is touting iOS in the Car, which will expand the focus, at least when car makers get with the program. Most of the major manufacturers are already involved in adapting iOS for some of their models, with the first supported vehicles expected to appear in 2014, according to Apple.

Now until the product is available in a few vehicles, it’ll be hard to see how far Apple is going to take their services, and whether it will be able to control such functions as the air conditioner and system adjustments. Would you be able to tell Siri, for example, that you’d like to have the door locks automatically engage as soon as you exceed 5 miles an hour? Yes, a number of cars let you do that, but the setup, if not stock, often requires going through several hard-to-configure menus.

This doesn’t mean Apple is going to conquer the motor vehicle, or that such powerful competitors as Microsoft are standing still. Some companies may prefer to stick with their own onboard systems rather than license technology from anyone.

Providing a full-featured service for someone else’s retail product is fairly new with Apple, and it extends way beyond developing iTunes for Windows. What it does mean is that Apple doesn’t have to buy a premium auto maker such as Tesla, or build an iCar to extend the iOS joy. However, one thing is sure. As more and more people become accustomed to living with Apple in their cars, assuming they’re satisfied, they’ll want to transport that experience to their homes and offices. That will create yet another halo effect for Apple, as more people will want to buy Apple gear to remain immersed in a user experience they love.

Of course, that assumes iOS in the Car will succeed. Some reports suggest that the existing Siri integration is somewhat imperfect, but when you compare Apple to the miserable user experience other companies offer, maybe customers will tolerate a few quirks if things rapidly get better. I mean, they haven’t stopped buying Fords.