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CarPlay and Ceding Control of the Motor Vehicle Interface

I suppose Ford’s executives felt that a partnership with Microsoft to create a new user interface scheme for their vehicle’s infotainment systems seemed perfectly logical. After all, Windows was the number one personal computing platform on the planet — this was before the amazing growth of iOS and Android. Surely giving customers something built by the company who already provides the computer interfaces they most likely use at home or in the office would be both familiar and popular.

Unfortunately, MyFord Touch was not the dream automotive interface that the developers intended. Far from it.

In addition to erratic performance and constant freezes, the touch interface was hit or miss, and customers complained bitterly. One of the major reasons Ford vehicles  suffered big time in the important J.D. Powers new car ratings was the result of problems with the infotainment system.

While regular updates have reportedly resolved a number of the problems, at least for some customers, you wonder how Ford and Microsoft let this disaster get away from them. We’re not talking of a smartphone that you buy for $199 at AT&T. The average price of a new car is over $30,000. While it “may” be possible to bring it back during the first few days of ownership and request a refund or exchange, it is never an easy process.

What’s more, having to confront problems with an infotainment system, particularly touch, could result in distracted driving. I will not choose to consider if any accidents, with injuries or just simple fender-benders, were caused because of the ongoing defects in the Ford/Microsoft system.

So this week, Apple is jumping into the sea of auto infotainment systems with CarPlay, which was launched at the Geneva Auto Show. This is the service formerly known as iOS in the Car, with a more appropriate name that describes its function.

One key reason why it’s now CarPlay, according to some analyses of Apple’s statements, and the early product demonstrations, is that the system is based on or is similar to AirPlay, Apple’s scheme that allows you to play the contents of your Mac, iPhone or iPad on an Apple TV.

So with CarPlay, motor vehicles equipped with the technology will allow you to, in a sense,  “play” your iPhone within the car’s user interface. It begins with Siri doing its voice recognition thing, and continues with full phone and entertainment integration. Apple promises easy and elegant eyes-free and handsfree experiences, so you can have a safer driver experience.

Of course, some experts suggest that anything that occupies your mind, even an intense conversation with a passenger, may constitute distracted driving. So Apple’s setup, even if everything works as advertised, may be a bit much if you don’t handle it with care.

On to CarPlay: One particularly fascinating feature is the ability to interpret data intelligently from the handset to guess where you might be heading. It will be able to use addresses in emails, texts, contacts and calendars to anticipate where you’re going and offer likely destinations.

I can see the possibilities.

Maybe a friend sends you an email about a great new Chinese restaurant, and, upon pulling out of the driveway and turning the corner, CarPlay offers to guide you there.

So where can you find this joy if you’re hunting for a new car, truck or SUV?

Well, according to Apple’s press release, the first companies to embrace the technology in new vehicles will be Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. That may already be the deal breaker for most, although both MB and Volvo have low-end cars that are priced in the range of high-end family cars from Honda, Kia and other companies. But still!

Over time, most of the major car makers will be involved in offering vehicles equipped with CarPlay. The list also includes: BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai Motor Company, Jaguar, Land Rover, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota.

Did they say Ford?

Well, not not immediately, of course. In addition to the first three, CarPlay will appear in 2014 models from Honda, Hyundai and Jaguar — dates for the rest are still uncertain. But I do wonder if Ford is hoping to replace that dreadful MyFord Touch system with something that really works.

Now the various car makers probably won’t be letting us in on which models with support CarPlay from the outset. According to Apple’s press release, it’ll require an update to iOS 7, and will only work with iPhones equipped with lightning connectors, which now include the iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5s. We’re talking of hard-wired connections here.

But one expects that the former means that Apple likely included special digital technology in their updated connection scheme that were unavailable in the original dock connector. So maybe there was a real method in Apple’s madness beyond making the connector smaller and reversible, and making your older accessories incompatible.

Now unlike other product releases, Apple really has to get CarPlay essentially perfect the very first time. Shipping a car with a broken infotainment system, and hoping the updates will fix it later, is an all-too-common problem with the auto industry. But if CarPlay launches with a pretty high level of reliability, Google and other companies hoping to gain traction in the car industry may find themselves rushing to catch up.

Sure, Apple’s critics will suggest they are late to the party. But Apple wasn’t first with graphical PC user interfaces, music players, smartphones and tablets. They merely worked on them longer to get things right.