Why Does Car Tech Lag Behind?
In-car software is several years behind smartphone technology.
Web2Carz Senior Writer
Published: September 21st, 2012
t seems like very little time passes between smartphone launches these days. And yet, even as smartphone integration becomes increasingly common in cars, the technology driving that integration, as well as the technology behind in-car infotainment systems, seems woefully behind, at least when compared to smartphones.
From buggy systems to interfaces that can't match the intuitiveness of Apple's iOS, it seems like automakers have some catching up to do. Sure, Ford's MyFordTouch and Sync systems along with Cadillac's CUE (Cadillac User Experience) offer plenty of high-tech features, and CUE even borrows some of its user interface—such as a pinch-to-zoom map—from smartphones. And apps, from Pandora to Stitcher to Bing, are popping up in all sorts of cars. But it seems like it takes a while to get these systems to market—and more importantly, to provide them with necessary updates and upgrades.
"This is a totally new area for OEMs." —TechCrunch writer Frederic Lardinois
Part of the reason for this is that these systems don't exist without the car in which they reside, and due to a variety of reasons (government crash-testing, focus group research, and internal product testing), it takes a long time—generally three to five years—to develop a new car or to give a full redesign to a current model. Since these infotainment systems are being developed concurrently, they obviously can't get to the market faster than the car itself.
What about updates to existing systems? That's trickier. Some of these systems have been panned for not living up to their promise—MyFordTouch in particular has been criticized for being buggy and confusing—and while it seems that automakers could be better about getting updates out quicker, there are a few reasons they don't.
According to Frederic Lardinois, a writer at TechCrunch, it's "safety concerns that slow things down." Automakers, he says, are "afraid to open it up," due to fear of lawsuits should an update go wrong. Lardinois cites the example of an out of control sound system—would a motorist sue if he or she were in an accident caused by distraction from a radio stuck at full volume?
That's one reason it can take up to six months for an update, Lardinois said.
Lardinois also cites consumer familiarity with hand-held devices as another roadblock in the further development of in-car infotainment systems. Consumers who might be confounded by a car's navigation system—or who are reluctant to pony up the extra cash to pay for one—can just use Google Maps on their smartphone.
"I think what's really happening is that consumers are routing around it," Lardinois said.
Inexperience in the area also doesn't help. While the people developing the software—along with a significant number of executives—are definitely tech-savvy, automakers are still entering an arena in which tech companies have been immersed and laser-focused for years.
"I think…this is a totally new area for OEMs," Lardinois said. He said that in three or four models years, "we'll be seeing something on par," with current smartphone tech, before noting that the next iPhone will still be ahead.
Alan Hall, director of technology communications with Ford, said that comparing smartphone development to cars is a bit unfair.
"It's an apples to oranges comparison. A phone doesn't need to withstand anywhere near the durability/quality/safety (government regulations) or life cycle requirements of automotive components," Hall said in an e-mail. "A car, including all electronics, is engineered for at least 10 years and 150,000 miles of use. Also, think about severe temperature extremes. A car, and thus software, needs to work at 40 below zero and 120 [degrees]."
General Motors is launching rival systems such as CUE and Chevrolet's MyLink, and GM reps agree that in-car systems have different physical challenges to face.
"The very first thing to think about is that an infotainment system lives in a vehicle environment," Kathleen McMahon, GM’s senior manager of infotainment program management, said.
Lardinois notes that supplier pairings play a small part in the pace of development, and automakers are still working on their own user interfaces. McMahon said one reason that the automaker's user interfaces are different from those of a smartphone is the threat of driver distraction. For simplicity's sake, menus are sometimes limited.
When queried about Apple's lack of presence in the in-car infotainment game (Microsoft is involved with MyFordTouch, Sync, and Kia's UVO system), Lardinois can only speculate that either Apple wants total control of the product—which would be impossible while working with an automaker, or that Apple is just too small of a company, believe it or not, to focus on such a product outside of its main range.
"People overestimate the size of Apple as a company," Lardinois said.
Hall said that update times are improving as automakers listen to feedback from customers.
"After we launched the upgrade in March, we heard from customers that they didn't like the fact that the outside temp display was removed from the touchscreen to make the clock font bigger," Hall said. "So we added it back in the software version that just launched. That's less than a six month turn-around in response to customer feedback putting a change into production. That's significant. And it shows our commitment and flexibility to now move much faster because we've decoupled the software development from the hardware development time frames."