A Challenge to the Automobile Companies

One of the highlights of this year’s CES was, literally, carloads of new technology shown by the automotive companies from Detroit, Europe, Korea, and Japan. Everything from self-driving vehicles to tablet-sized displays to 20 speaker audio systems. The automotive industry seems to have embraced new technology, with many of the companies opening research and development centers in Silicon Valley, hoping perhaps to catch some of the Tesla brilliance.

I truly hope this marks a turn for the better from the industry’s normally slow, lumbering approach to incorporating technology in their products. They’ve been great at showing flashy technology of the future, but it’s taken years to implement even small changes. An auto executive once told me a new feature typically takes three years to show up, because models for the next two years were already “put to bed”. Three years is almost an eternity in tech.

Based on my own observations and experience with several auto companies’ navigation systems, count me skeptical. Navigation has been one of the most promising areas at the intersection of technology and automobiles, yet progress has been dismally slow. Today’s GPS differs little from those of five or ten years ago. User interfaces remain well behind our phones or computers and no company can match the navigation capabilities offered by Google navigation on our smartphones.

My wife’s Toyota Highlander is a good example. From the display to the user interface to the poor logic, it’s a real mess. Display resolution and touch sensitivity can’t compare with a $250 tablet. The controls for commonly used functions are hidden in menus. One of the most annoying features is you cannot enter a destination with the car in motion, even though the car knows there is a passenger in the front seat. And I’ve yet to find speech recognition on any car that’s good enough to use regularly.

With few exceptions, navigation systems still require you to enter a street address rather than a landmark as you can with Google. As a result, many of us abandon this expensive option and use our phones instead, or no longer buy the navigation option.

And for those that do use their car’s built-in navigation, the cost to keep it current is exorbitant, typically $200 for an update. And if you want to see traffic, expect to pay at least that amount for a yearly subscription.

My plea to the automotive companies that are promising all of this new technology would be to show us now what you can do with navigation. Figure out a way to do as good a job as Google Maps. And, if you can’t, at least provide a built-in mount so I can hang my phone on the dashboard instead of using the cup holder.

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Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at www.bakerontech.com.

35 thoughts on “A Challenge to the Automobile Companies”

  1. I’ve given up on in-car anything. My tablet and phones have better GPS, info, and entertainment. Just give me a mount and power and sound plugs for them.

    1. Same here. Bought a new car in December and the dealer is listing off all the features. I pulled out my iPad mount and said “I just need to be able to mount this so it doesn’t get in the way.” I don’t need their horrible attempts to integrate technology.

  2. I don’t understand the need for GPS.
    97.32% of us drive the same routes every day. It is called commuting.
    Hell, we don’t even need street signs.

    Given how fast technology changes why have it “locked” (integrated) in your car.
    For example, my 2007 Audi has a tape deck and a CD slot. It was obsolete about 2 years after I bought the car. And, that is a simple example without software being involved.

    1. I don’t drive routinely, so none of my trips are commutes. I’m dreadful at orientation, both pathologically incompetent and utterly uninterested in fixing that, so I rely heavily on GPS for any trip. I actually got lost on my scubadiving certifying dive. Had to promise never to lead anyone incl myself to get that paper. Even though I did know which way was up *the whole time* !

      Plus even for commutes, good GPS systems give you traffic updates.

      1. Hope your impaired sense of direction doesn’t go as far as your underwater forays. Or is there GPS for that as well? 🙂

        1. Indeed it does. Before giving up on the whole subject, I tried several times during on-foot hikes to simply, knowing where I was, match it on the map. I only can hack it with the most strenuous effort, and 5 minutes later I’m just as lost again.
          The brain is a weird thing, and my drawing-to-real world mapping circuit is deficient. I’m Ok if I can abstractly triangulate (I was fine navigating Paris with its few high landmarks), I just can’t match reality to a drawing. Frankly, I’m often struggling even with a GPS.
          And it’s a very specific issue, I’m not bad a pattern-matching in general.
          Makes for interesting tourism: I just discover new cities randomly walking, maybe aiming at some high point.

    2. I used to think that, but have since discovered that while I can’t drive my regular routes almost blindfolded, the GPS unit gets traffic updates and lets me avoid traffic jams that I cannot yet see.

    3. A tape deck in a 2007 car? My wife drives a 2007 Mini Cooper and it was never offered with a tape deck. Maybe Audi was behind the curve?

  3. If I’m not mistaken, you seem to be saying that Apple’s CarPlay and others are the solution.

    To come up with true “reasons to exist” for connected cars, you need to think beyond navigation alone.

    1. I think doing a little bit at the margins (GPS, info, entertainment) is fairly worthless (tablets/phones are better for that); doing a lot (autonomous cars) is complicated and will have early issues.

      The problem with cars is that they’re dangerous, boring to drive (can’t do anything else + need to park), and wasteful (5% utilization time, require driver). The only way to solve that is via autonomous cars, assuming that’s technically feasible and that public perception and legal framework don’t block that out.

      But once you have autonomous cars you don’t need car ownership either: car-as-a-service works just as well, and hopefully ups utilization rate. So the outlook is probably not just self-driving cars, but car-as-a-service, and car pooling on the back of it.

      From the user side, once you pay $20 for your daily 1h commute, you might be happy to pay $15 for 1h15 with car-sharing, and $12 for car-sharing in sponsored cars with ads everywhere.

      From the supplier side, the AAA says a car costs $9k/yr ($7k for mall sedans to $11k for SUV or minivans, for everything: gaz, insurance, amortization, maintenance, depreciation http://newsroom.aaa.com/2015/04/annual-cost-operate-vehicle-falls-8698-finds-aaa/ ), and cars are in use 5%of the time, ie 4.5k hours/year. That’s $20/hr of use (I got lucky on my $20/hr guesstimate earlier), so paying $20/hr is financially neutral for the user, but you get to not drive (maybe not even be in the car to ferry kids), not be bothered with parking, and not have the maintenance/accident liabilities and hassles. The suppliers of car-service can probably get a lot of financial upside from upping usage, car-pooling, and cost optimization (fleet prices, right-sizing…).

      I think smart cars are a sea change not only for the individual user, but for the car industry as a whole, and that the transitory steps will be quickly forgotten. In-car infotainment is irrelevant compared to that.

      1. “From the user side, once you pay $10 for your daily 1h commute, you might be happy to pay $8 for 1h15 with car-sharing, and $7 for car-sharing in sponsored cars with ads everywhere.”

        In the US we call that “mass transit”.


      2. Joe has mentioned the mass transit/public transport angle, and I agree with him. Any calculation of the benefits of autonomous vehicles should include a comparison with public transport. Of course the problem is that the availability and quality of public transport differs largely depending on where you live, so you can’t do a one size fits all calculation.

        There are also so many US centric assumptions in the calculations that many pundits make regarding car use. That cars are utilised up to 5% (in locations with good public transport, it would be much lower), that space is wasted with car parks (I suppose you’ve never seen the “elevator-type car parks” we have in Japan), the unusually low cost of gasoline in the US, that people commute by car at all, etc. The same calculations simply don’t apply to other parts of the world.


        This however was not the intent of my comment at all. I was having issue with the way Phil was only talking about navigation systems, and I thought that was rather pointless. I agree with your comment where you said you thought it was “fairly worthless”.

        1. Indeed, we’re veering off-topic, but that’s a fascinating issue. The mass transit and parking points are only semi-relevant:

          Automated space-saving parking is nice, but you still have to walk to/from the park, take up space (less of it) with the parking structure… not the same as having the car pickup up/drop you off right on the spot, then going 5 miles away to cheap parking space.

          Mass transit already competes with cars, but it is a different proposition, with:
          – a fair bit of walking
          – connections
          – mixing up with the plebes
          – coverage issues
          – depending on conditions, time might work either way (public transport might be quicker or slower)

          There are plenty of situations aside from personal preferences (personal cars and mass transit are wholly different experiences) in which mass transit won’t do: the old/young/sick, lotsa bags (or even worse, kids ^^), weird routes, extreme weather, tight timing…

          I’d assume car-as-a-service will compete vs personal cars mostly (including personal autonomous cars), maybe a bit vs mass transit, but probably have more of a symbiotic relationship with it.

          1. Any kind of transportation as a service—buses, trains, cabs, even Uber/Lyft—depend on population density to make it worthwhile from either perspective—service provider or user.

            The beauty of owning the car has less to do with total usage and more to do with convenience—having the transportation when you need it. You can get away without a car in NYC or Chicago because there is enough supply and demand.

            Someplace like Atlanta is harder because both mass transit and cabs are hard to get or get to in many parts of the city. Even with Uber you still need to wait and hope you aren’t in a time or location that is too busy (or even avoided).

            It’s not about when the transportation isn’t used, it is about when it is needed.

            I won’t even get into the notion of people actually enjoying driving their cars (of which I am one). Or even people who live in areas more rural.


          2. I’m not so sure:

            Population density does have an impact on miles to user. That can be paid for via pricing by zone, charging for the trip to the user… supply and demand gets adjusted by SUPPLY and demand.

            I’d assume demand peaks to be more of an issue than pop. density, with very sharp peaks at work and school start and end. More surge pricing, fixed-time subscriptions, premium no-wait service… I’m sure Uber et al will have a lot of fun being creative about segmenting and extracting more money for better service.

            I’d argue most of the cost of a car is when it isn’t used: parking, depreciation, amortization… but even if it isn’t, utilization rate is a massive argument, on top of freeing up time both inside (driving) and outside (walking to) the car.

          3. You’re still missing the point of why people own cars in the US. The car represents freedom. It cost nothing to park in front of my house. It is always ready when I am, no waiting.

            Population density is the only way transportation as a service has a shot at making money.


          4. That perception may be outdated though: Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why http://www.fastcoexist.com/3027876/millennials-dont-care-about-owning-cars-and-car-makers-cant-figure-out-why

            As for “always available”, One third of cars aged from three to 10 years old will suffer mechanical failure over the next 12 months, according to new research. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/road-safety/8510497/One-in-three-cars-will-break-down-over-the-next-12-months.html

            As for “parked in front of the house”, depends on where you live I guess: Is 30% of traffic actually searching for parking? http://www.reinventingparking.org/2013/10/is-30-of-traffic-actually-searching-for.html

            Edit: repeated the urls in clear text since disqus shortens them

          5. Except that I just read (maybe here I can’t remember where exactly) that millennials were the largest demographic in new auto sales best quarter in several years. Apparently millennials care more than their street cred was allowing them to care. The millennials I know are tired of bummin rides.

            Cars can be fixed. And the once or so a year it needs to be in the shop does not displace the rest of the ownership time.

            As for parking, that is absolutely the point. The problem is in city limits, where mass transit is usually strong enough. But that isn’t the only place people live.

            Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I don’t think great transportation as a service isn’t needed. Only that, at least in the US, the problem isn’t just about financial math. And that hour+ commute is for people outside city limits driving into town for work, where transportation as a service is weakest and demand is spread out, which is a large reason they are driving.


          6. The more with discuss it, the more I see parallels with our never ending discussions on Apple, which means you’re probably right.

            Either you see the device as a tool to do a job with the least amount of expense and fuss, or you see it as a symbol of status/freedom/… in which case more expensive things happen.

          7. I think it is telling that some people would rather have a beat up ol’ hunk of junk of a car that needs constant attention than do without, even in cities like NYC or Chicago.


          8. It’s telling of the lack of alternatives, and fond memories of the backseat, before Snapchat ?

          9. Yes, but that’s what taxis are for.

            I agree that self driving cars could significantly reduce the cost of taxis, but then the same technology will benefit bus cost structures as well. Buses currently operate at very thin margins, and have very little profit, if at all. As a result, the networks aren’t as extensive as the could ideally be. I would prefer to see a better bus network as a result of autonomous driving technology, than a network of taxis. It would probably be much easier on the road traffic load as well.

          10. It’s funny how differently we see things.

            How can the driver’s wages make more of a difference for a bus (with an average load of say 10 passengers, up to 80) than for a car (with an average load of less than 2, max 7) ?

            As for the public vs private and mass vs personal dichotomies, they essentially vanish.

            If we go for a minimum wage of $12 (sorry, we’re staying in the US for now ^^), wages are 6x what the AAA tells us is the $2 per-hour cost of owning a car. So by getting rid of the driver, you’re getting rid of 84% of the cost ! Dividing the cost of taxis by 7 and the cost of plain cars by probably 3 (via sharing) is a complete game changer. An inflexion point in Eric Schimidt-ish. A disruption in Cristensen-ish. Smart cars should do to the transportation industry in general what Uber is doing to taxis, only moreso: Uber started out only about half as expensive, and a bit more available. Smart cars have the potential to be vastly more inexpensive than even plain cars, let alone taxis, and with an essentially infinite supply.

          11. You are assuming that a) the supply of roads is sufficient to accommodate a huge increase in traffic, b) that many people will pay to ride self driving cars which may be cheaper than taxis, but still significantly more expensive than public transport.

            While you do add car sharing in your calculations, you fail to provide an estimation of how prevailant car sharing actually is, despite having the same benefits even today.

            You also do not notice that buses are not all 80-seaters. Buses can be as small as 5 seaters where I live. The only real difference between buses and car sharing is that buses drive according to a predefined schedule and always cost the same. Hence there is a level of predictability that is essential for commuting, and not available (at least so I’ve heard) for services like UberPool.

          12. I’m not assuming traffic will increase tremendously: a good part will be smart cars replacing dumb cars. Actually, with parking more remote, traffic might well go down in congested areas, with empty cars exiting quickly instead of looking for local parking (which is up to 40% of traffic in some areas)

            Today’s car sharing does not have the same benefits: it’s not as optimized, it’s more of a burden on the driver (must be there from start to finish), it’s not always compensated financially…

            I’m not sure if being on a fixed schedule and at fixed stops is an advantage compared to being on my schedule at my spot. I’m sure future solutions will take “must be at work by XX:XX” as a criteria, that sounds fairly evident.

      3. Utilization is low for privately owned cars, but wear and tear is, as well. I’m not saying wear and tear totally negates savings from higher utilization rates but a private car that has a useful life of 10 years will probably see that go down under shared use. So higher utilization, shorter useful life, faster turn over of cars, society might end up producing just as many cars per given period. Plus, human nature, I’m far less likely to abuse a car if I own it –that adds to the wear and tear. And then, building industrial strength chassis and components to withstand higher utilization –that cost curve is subject to diminishing returns thus another cost factor that rises exponentially.

        Just saying the math on shared auto use starts with utilization rates but doesn’t end there.

        1. Not sure it works that way on the whole: a car dies because of 2 things: aging and wear&tear. Higher usage does increase wear&tear, but not aging (oxydation…), so I’d think a car with higher usage still ends up cheaper per hour of use than a car with lower usage (say, one car running up 10,000 hours over 2 years, the other one over 10 years).
          Plus you get side effects of automation: fewer accidents and incidents, better handling (missed speed shifts, smoother acceleration/breaking…)

          Indeed, user behaviour might be an issue, looking at the state of mass transit ^^

          Edit: clarity

      4. The Math is now wrong

        24×365,25=8766 hours

        5%x 8766=438 hours a year (make it a nice 0.45k hours a year
        with $9k cost per year that is $20 per hour.

        1. dammit that’s what I had originally before I went back and edited in my mistake. I’ll let it stand, hopefully people reading that old post will also rad your comment.

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