Do people who read tech blogs, or listen to tech radio shows, buy books about such mundane subjects as cooking? Well, as Adam Engst, of TidBITS and Take Control Books, explained on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, he actually published a book on making Thanksgiving turkey a few years back. But his audience just wasn’t terribly interested. In any case, we had a brief discussion during this segment about making pizza. Better him than me, and I haven’t attempted to roast a turkey in several decades.
We also talked about Google’s corporate reorganization that resulted in creating a holding company known as Alphabet. Adam explained why the presence of electronic stability control on newer motor vehicles was a prime reason why he purchased a new car for his 16-year-old son, and he and Gene got into an extended discussion about the sad state of auto infotainment systems. Is CarPlay the solution, and is Apple working on building its own car?
My personal interest, as a senior citizen, is a self-driving vehicle. While I know people far older than I who manage to continue to drive safely, I do worry about one’s declining abilities. Some locales may have decent public transportation systems, but where I live, about half an hour’s drive from Phoenix, mass transit hardly exists, or at least it’s not terribly close. While I love driving, I can see the day when I might consider an automated or robotic alternative, if it were affordable of course.
Meantime, one feature that is extremely important regardless of your motoring skills is the rear-view camera. That’s the system that lets you see what’s happening behind you, usually outfitted to the car’s display or rear-view mirror and engaged when the transmission switches into reverse. It’s supposed to be mandated on U.S. cars next year, and it’s indispensable, particularly with the latest generation of fancy cars with high belt lines and reduced rear visibility. You get a far wider field of vision than just looking out the rear window, and there are usually guide points on the screen that allow you to gauge how far you from an obstruction, or perhaps a child or a pet. I gather it does reduce accidents. My Kia has one, and I will never buy another vehicle without it.
You’ll also heard from Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer, who also discussed car infotainment systems and the prospects for an Apple Car. The discussion turned to the data breach at Ashley Madison, a site that specializes in matching up people for possible “discrete encounters.” And what about Apple Music, the prospects for a larger iPad, the iPad Pro, along with a new stylus design? There was also a brief discussion about Apple’s “neglected” products.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Featuring guest co-host Curt Collins. The last time Red Pill Junkie, a prolific blogger on all things paranormal, appeared on The Paracast, he entertained us with his tale of attending that Mexico City event in which the alleged evidence for the Roswell Slides was presented. He will touch upon that subject briefly, but also focus on UFOs and the possible sources of the phenomenon, what form alien life might take, UFO abductions and the possible similarities with near-death experiences, precognition and loads of other compelling subjects. Red Pill Junkie, describes himself as, “An agnostic gnostic, a walking conundrum and a metaphysical oxymoron —with emphasis in the ‘moron’ part.” The discussion continues on After The Paracast.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’ve got swag! We’re taking orders direct from our Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
When Ford wanted to add a modern infotainment system to their motor vehicles they partnered with Microsoft. I suppose that seemed a logical move at the time, since most anyone with a personal computer used Microsoft’s operating system. So surely that company knew how to design a proper user interface.
But for a car?
Well, MyFord Touch became the feature owners loved to hate. Slow menus, touchscreens that often didn’t sense your touch, and a general byzantine interface. It all compounded to reduce the scores in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. Ford vehicles were otherwise quite reliable overall. They were well rated for ride and handling, though admittedly they fudged some of the fuel economy numbers on some of their vehicles. But when it came to the infotainment system, frustration ruled.
To be sure, Ford and Microsoft continued to work on the problem to make the interface more responsive, more useful. Eventually Ford opted to do it themselves. Clearly the Microsoft connection wasn’t suited to the needs of a modern car company. But Microsoft’s interfaces are found in other vehicles.
Kia Motors uses Microsoft’s UVO system in many of their vehicles. My Kia has it, and it’s not necessarily bad, but not something I would have selected had there been a choice.
So voice recognition is about 90% accurate, but that can be a big deal when I want to call someone and have to repeat the command one or more times. You’re also forced to learn the right syntax, such as “Call Gene Steinberg at home,” or “Call Gene Steinberg on mobile.” This is UVO’s scheme to recognize a contact with more than one phone number, but if you fail to use the precise verbiage, it’ll get flummoxed. Usually it’ll go to the first number on your contact list.
In its favor, UVO does manage to recognize my iPhone’s contacts, more or less. Difficult-to-pronounce names may produce peculiar responses from the robotic voice assistant, though, and sometimes the results just don’t make sense even when the correct name ought to be fairly obvious.
As a radio broadcaster, I expect my speech to be relatively clear and distinct. Regional accents are not significant, but I still encounter recognition issues. There is a training mode, similar to what you use on dictation software for a Mac or PC. You read a few paragraphs in the same rhythm as your normal speech, and supposedly UVO will provide more accurate voice recognition. Except when it doesn’t.
After I used the training mode, accuracy took a nosedive. I finally set things to “Default,” and let it do its thing without training. Even then, from time to time I have to reset the system when recognition quality nosedives. The worst problems occur in hot weather, when the air conditioner is struggling to keep up and the fans are loud. I try to point my head right at the mic, which is located on the dash near the climate control knobs. That helps.
In some other cars, I’ve noticed that, when you hit the voice recognition button, the fan speed slows to quiet the vehicle and help improve accuracy. Not that such a scheme necessarily works all that well, but the Kia doesn’t even make the attempt.
But where many of these systems fail is in handling the basics. As most of you know, in the old days, a car radio had physical buttons for volume, tuning and the station presets. Sometimes you had an extra button with which to select the radio band, such as AM, FM or satellite, or extra banks of presets. When you find the station you want to preset, you simply press and hold one of those buttons, and it’ll store it in a few seconds with a beep in response.
I remember once test driving a 2011 Hyundai Sonata. That model represented the first iteration of their “Fluidic Sculpture,” design motif, where the car had a swooping, futuristic look. In 2015, Hyundai tamed it with a version 2.0 that some regard as boring.
The car’s dash was undeniably attractive and relatively well laid out. But some of the infotainment system controls were, typical for the breed, buried in multiple menus. Not seeing an immediate method to store a station preset, I asked the salesperson, who gave me a look of surprise as if the question had never been asked before. At the end of the day, they had to consult a house “expert” in the service department to figure it out.
Yes, the details were recorded un the user manual, but the basics of using a motor vehicle, and that includes storing your favorite radio stations, ought to be front and center and not hidden from direct view. Besides, user manuals are usually not given out till you actually buy the vehicle and are ready to take it home. Unfortunately, car makers generally produce one manual that covers all versions of any single model. So there might be several chapters of infotainment system instructions depending on which sound setup your vehicle contains.
On the Kia, presets are still buried in a second menu, but when the radio is playing, there’s at least a visible Presets button that you can tap to bring up the list. So it’s one step removed, which is still not all that user friendly, but at least easier to grasp. You can also toggle through station presets and MODE (radio and media) on the steering wheel. You can also select AM/FM or SAT with a physical button at the left of the car’s LCD display. AM no longer earns a separate button for itself.
As to the touchscreens, they are adequately sensitive, I suppose, though you sometimes have to tap twice to bring up a function. This happens more often the first time you try after you start the vehicle. The response, however, tends to be just slightly delayed, similar to the way a touchscreen works on a typical point of sale system.
I’m sure most of you have war stories dealing with recalcitrant and buggy infotainment systems on your cars and trucks. While car makers manage to add incredible technologies to their vehicles, such as lane change warnings, and smart cruise control, which can bring a vehicle to stop in the event an obstruction is ahead, they cannot seem to grasp proper user interfaces.
The situation is, based on my limited test driving, far worse on luxury cars. A relative used to own a fancy Mercedes-Benz E-Class convertible. Typical of such systems, it used a large multifunction knob with which to call up different features. You turned, pressed, or pushed and pressed in a particular way to access a particular menu on the vehicle’s display. While those functions were clearly labeled on the knob, very little about it was intuitive.
As a result, the radio was rarely used, because setting it up was a chore, and forget about the navigation feature. Once you know how it works, and there are thick poorly-written user manuals designed to help you sort things out, it does come together with some efficiency. One time, I sat in the car for about 30 minutes to give most of the basic features a try, and configure things in a way I thought would be useful for the owner.
But the owner didn’t care. Recently widowed, and not technically astute, she was glad she could start, drive and park the vehicle. The rest was too difficult for her to bother with. She later traded the car for something smaller, cheaper, and easier and obviously safer to drive. But I won’t get into the safety issue, since the consequences of distracted driving out to be obvious.
Apple’s solution is CarPlay, which basically presents a simplified iOS-style interface on your car’s display. It is only now turning up in affordable vehicles. The 2016 Honda Accord has it in the high-end configurations (EX or better), and you’ll see it on the 2016 Kia Optima. Both models also support Android Auto, so you’re not restricted to one smartphone brand.
There are rumors that Apple is going whole hog into the auto business and will build an Apple Car a few years from now. Perhaps. Or perhaps Apple is actually trying to establish motorized platforms with which to test more sophisticated versions of CarPlay that will eventually assume additional electronic functions on a motor vehicle.
I’m not privy to Apple’s game plan. But it’s clear to me that automakers just don’t understand how to develop proper infotainment systems that respect the needs of the customer, and just work reliably without lengthy training periods. Even when they are responsive, and offer all the bells and whistles to deliver the best quality audio in your vehicle, they are far from intuitive. Drivers are distracted enough as it is these days. You shouldn’t have to stop and think every time you want your car to do something other than routine driving. Consider the potential safety concerns.
But if any of you has a happy tale to tell about setting up and using a car’s infotainment system, I’m all ears.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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