Today marked the soft opening of the LA Auto Show with the annual Connected Car Expo, a one-day conference that showcases innovative companies designing the future of the connected car space. Thorough a dozen panel discussions and four introductions, it’s clear that the challenges facing auto makers and suppliers are no easier than they were three years ago when the conference first kicked off.
There’s no shortage of ideas about how connected cars with rich infotainment experiences and autonomous technology COULD work, and that’s kind of the problem. Maggie Hendrie from California’s Art Center College of Design suggests that people want car designs to “express themselves.” Mary Ann Norris de Lares described a multi-screen system including sensors in the windows that would allow a child in the back seat to drag information on the historic buildings they were passing to a screen in the seatback, ala Tony Stark. Bryan T. Biniak — Global VP and General Manager with Microsoft talked “advanced mood detection” in cars, to alert you that your spouse had a bad day before you got home.
Of course, the trouble is, what we already have today doesn’t work particularly well, and causes consumers to lack confidence in the REALLY important stuff coming in the future, namely autonomous and semi-autonomous cars.
Every two-bit app developer sees the car as the final frontier. They’ve sold you technology at home, and they’ve sold it to you in your office, but because cars are intensely private places built by companies that want to own the entire experience from start to finish, breaking in has only come in fits and starts.
In a panel discussion entitled “Barbarians at the Head Unit: The Evolution of Device Connectivity,” CloudCar CEO Konstantin Orthmer describe the way auto manufacturers built the infotainment experience as deciding to start an online store by first building a personal computer.
The result has been a range of home-baked connectivity options that provide the complete opposite of what they were intended to do. They’re not making a driver’s life simpler. They’re making a driver’s life infinitely more complicated, and it’s showing in declining initial quality studies by J.D. Power. Renee Stephens, J.D. Powers’ Vice President of US Automotive Quality drove the point home by showing a video of a dozen average consumers attempting to interact with the voice controls in their cars. Regardless of the brand, they all failed to understand the simplest, clearest commands.
“Consumers are struggling with the value that advanced technology adds,” said Stephens. And they’ve been struggling with it for a long time. Before MyFordTouch it was BMW’s iDrive. Before that, Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system left every mobile phone adopters confused. We’ve had connectivity in cars for at least 15 years now, and we seem to be getting worse.
Some want collaboration to be the panacea for improved connectivity, but OEMs are at odds with Google and Apple about how much control they give up in the cars that they spend so much time and effort building. Car companies need to maintain “the carness of the car,” says Phil Abram, Chief Infotainment Officer at OnStar, which is responsible for Chevrolet MyLink and the Cadillac CUE system — both of which seem to have learned important lessons from the MyFordTouch experience.
There’s a bit of frustration you might be willing to put up with when dialing a phone or choosing a radio station. That patience goes out the window, though, when you find yourself confused by why your car is nudging you into the center of the lane, or flashing a wild warning that you’re about to crash into the car in front of you when you’re 20 feet further back than you’d normally brake, with a history of never crashing into anyone.
“Customers want connectivity, but they don’t want complexity,” said Toyota’s Manager of Strategic Partnerships, Jason Schulz. But the most interesting perspective on that statement came from the most unlikely place: The guy who ultimately has to sell it. Mike Sullivan is the President of LACarGuy, a chain of 10 dealers in the Los Angeles area.
He’s the boots on the ground, the guy who has to sit across the desk from a customer with maybe not the greatest credit, who came in to buy the Civic, but would really rather drive the Accord. If that customers is on the bubble of being able to afford one step better car, Mike Sullivan suggests, the greatest technology in the world is going to remain on the shelf if it comes at a $3,000 price tag.
And it’s not like we haven’t experienced this before. When antilock brakes and airbags were significantly expensive options in the mid-1990s, customers opted for premium audio, leather seats and sunroofs at a much higher rate.
Sullivan also commented on the difficulty of training his own staff to understand how complex infotainment systems worked, and then translating that to a customer who was already frustrated with the length of the sales process, and simply wanted to pick up the keys to their new car and hit the road.
Interestingly, CloudCar’s CEO Konstantin Othmer provided the enlightening moment of the day when he suggested that the only place where mobile technology in the car is better than it is out of the car: the phone call. He correctly pointed out that the experience of conducting a phone call inside the car — with good speakers and an excellent microphone — is significantly better than holding a tiny, radiating device to your ear.
And that’s the ultimate irony: Every other experience with a mobile device except for a phone call in a car is worse, but the number of people actually using a mobile device to make calls is dropping through the floor. Communication through texting or social networks is much higher, and those experiences in the car are poor. At the end of the Connected Car Expo for 2014, we really aren’t any closer to a solution than we were three years ago.