Another Apple Can’t Do That Report

March 3rd, 2015

Since rumors first emerged that Apple might be working on a car, members of the tech and auto press have been skeptical. Car makers have been quoted attacking the temerity of Apple in attempting to get into the car business. It’s almost reminiscent of the statements that Apple had no business making cell phones, and we all know how that turned out.

The other day I read yet another skeptical article about Apple’s automobile intentions, whatever they might be, deriding Tim Cook’s statement about Apple Watch being used in place of your key fob. Cook likens it to the way Apple is replacing your credit card with Apple Pay, by offering a simple substitute to an awkward system that uses an Apple gadget.

The theory goes that the auto industry has had decades to perfect key fobs and push button starting schemes, so how does Apple think they can do any better? I recall one particularly incoherent passage about security. But consider this. Over the years, I’ve owned cars that have push button starting systems, activated by a key fob that I can leave in my pocket. Now the little gadget may also be capable of storing your custom seat adjustments and such. So when you start the car with that key fob, everything is adjusted accordingly. Your significant other may use another key fob for the same car to establish a different set of adjustments.

But if you swap the key fobs, the settings are swapped too. It’s easy to do by mistake unless you label the key fobs. They aren’t keyed or in any way customized to you. You aren’t being recognized by fingerprints or retina scans. Another common feature of these keyless entry systems is the ability to go over to your car’s left or right front door, push a tiny button and have the door just open. All you have to do is have the key fob handy. Possession is all it takes, even if the one possessing that key fob is someone who robbed it from you at gunpoint. See the picture?

So what if the same functions became part of an iPhone, requiring your fingerprint to activate, or were customized to work with an Apple Watch? Wouldn’t that offer more security while still allowing you to carry one less thing around with you? Well, there is Apple Watch, but access can still be encrypted.

Just asking.

I’m also concerned about some news reports, dating back to last year’s Black Hat security conference, claiming it was very easy for hackers to wirelessly unlock your car. No need to worry about fiddling with hangars or the more injurious approach of breaking glass. The intent of this hack was to defeat the security of the keyless entry system using off-the-shelf tools.

Rather disquieting that.

Now when Apple enters a new market, it’s usually to disrupt that market, fix what is wrong with an elegant solution. Back in the days of the iPod, it was about the horrible user interfaces and pathetic performance of existing digital music players. The iPhone made smartphones warm and fuzzy, and the iPad was the first successful tablet in a market where previous tablets had failed.

But aren’t cars doing really well these days, fully recovered from the recession?

From a sales standpoint, yes. People love their cars and trucks, but the latest and greatest auto technology isn’t quite getting the love. Consider the results of the recent J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study. Some of the biggest problems weren’t caused by engines failing to start, or transmissions slipping out of gear. It was about the onboard electronics, where 31% of the people reported that their phones wouldn’t reconnect to the vehicle’s Bluetooth system when they started up the vehicle. I’m not surprised about this, nor that 55% claimed the vehicle wouldn’t recognize their phone when they tried to pair it. The accuracy of voice recognition systems is also a common a source of complaint.

Why am I not surprised?

I’ve owned several vehicles with Blueooth capability. It’s not uncommon to have to shut the engine, and start it again, or restart my smartphone to have it work even after it’s been paired. To be fair, I’ve never had a problem actually pairing an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy, but there is no perfect voice recognition system. It’s always hit or miss.

With the Kia, for example, sometimes I have to repeat a command two or three times for it to dial a number or call up someone in my contact list. Remember that I’m a professional broadcaster, and yes I do play one on radio.

Isn’t the infotainment system a ripe area for Apple disruption? What about the key fob system? And that’s before we get to the rest of the onboard electronics. Apple could also do a lot to reform the typical car buying experience. While more and more of you select and buy cars online, whenever you have to go through a traditional vehicle financing process, prepare for torture. I always feel exhausted at the end of the process, even if I warn the finance person at the start of the session that I will refuse all dealer vehicle packs, and finance, insurance and warranty add-ons. I still have to sign a paper where I specify that I rejected all of these offers, and I’ve been real close to just admonishing the dealer to stop the nonsense or I’ll leave.

When it comes to the auto industry, there are lots of things Apple can do to make the purchase and ownership experience far more pleasant. Car makers may scoff at the prospects of Apple playing in their sandbox, but my warning to them is to be afraid, very afraid if Apple decides to get involved.

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