Carmakers and technology – thoughts from the New York Auto Show

on April 2, 2015

I spent Wednesday in a couple of different car-related activities: first, I spent the morning getting an in-depth briefing with a handful of other analysts on Nokia subsidiary Here’s automotive activities and then spent a couple of hours at the New York International Auto Show. I did all this in the context of a connected car report I’m nearing completion on and which I referenced briefly in my last piece about this space, focused mostly on Apple’s CarPlay. Having spent some time on both of these activities, I wanted to share some views about where carmakers are in regard to technology, the significant shortcomings some of them still have, and also some of the unique advantages they have.

Carmakers as “metal-benders”

This unflattering term was used by one of the people I spoke to recently who works for a provider of technology that goes into cars and I think it reflects very well the mentality a lot of us have about carmakers’ potential with regard to technology.

We’ve all seen really poor in-car technology and it seems to reflect a deep-seated inability to understand what sort of experiences people expect today. But it also reflects extremely long development cycles at these carmakers. Another anecdote I heard was about a carmaker that had to make a decision about whether or not to include MySpace in its social technology options – the decision was made years ago, but the car in question only shipped this year. That’s emblematic of the challenges carmakers face when developing technology – it’s on a fundamentally different timeline from all the the other technology we use day in and day out, with frequent software and hardware refreshes, two year hardware upgrade cycles and big annual software releases for smartphones and so on.

What tends to flow from all this is really poor technology in cars. At the Auto Show, one of the experiences I tested was in an Audi, and I’ve embedded a brief video of it below. Remember, this is a premium automobile on display at one of the big auto shows. I suggest you have the sound on when you watch the video, because you’ll hear the clicks as I manipulate the dial that zooms the screen and you’ll notice the lag between the click and the response:

This is what many of us think of when we think of in-car technology and, I think partly for that reason, it was actually really tough to get demos of most of the tech at the New York Auto Show. The carmakers seem to feel there just isn’t that much to show off and the electronic displays next to cars at the show tend to show you the standard transmission options, trim levels and colors but say little about the technology. What they do say about the technology tends to be pretty generic – “navigation and smartphone syncing”, for example. It’s tempting to believe because of all this carmakers have no chance in bringing compelling technology to market, but that’s a huge generalization.

Carmakers getting things right

I did find a couple of examples of carmakers getting things right at the Auto Show and it’s worth talking about. Just as all smartphone makers are far from being the same, not all carmakers are the same, and some are producing far better in-car technology experiences than the Audi one I shared above. I don’t have video to show you, but I do have some screenshots, and the experiences these represent are a lot better. Two cars in particular I was impressed by were the Volvo XC90 and the Jaguar XF (which was announced at the show) – see the images below (the first is the Jaguar and the second is the Volvo):

Jaguar in-car display

IMG_7533 copy

These two user interfaces were much more fluid and intuitive than the Audi one, and felt way more smartphone-like in their usability than many of the other UIs on the market today. These two carmakers are getting at least some things right and they’re not the only ones. It’s telling to me these are both somewhat premium vehicles, and I suspect their makers are finally catching up with the reality of what in-car technology needs to be. Neither is perfect, but both are getting a lot closer.

Carmakers’ advantages

To take things even further, carmakers have a couple of other advantages in moving in-car technology forward which I think will make it tough for smartphone vendors to be more than just an add-on as they are today. The first is they control all the displays in the car, as I alluded to in the earlier piece. As the cluster display (behind the steering wheel) becomes another all-digital display rather than an analog one as in the past (something I saw quite a bit of at the Auto Show), it becomes an extension of the head unit display in the center console. As such, these two need to work tightly together and solutions like CarPlay and Android Auto in their current configurations can’t touch that cluster display.

But more importantly, for the advanced information and navigation services carmakers are starting to work on, information about the car itself and its state will become increasingly vital in producing the best possible experience, and neither Google nor Apple will have access to that information if the current approach to in-car technology continues. Here and other technology providers for the car are already starting to work on navigation which takes into account the particular characteristics of the car – its mass and weight distribution, how it consumes fuel, dimensions and so on – in determining not just the fastest route but the most fuel efficient and safest route, too. And they use information about the car in real time, such as fuel levels, to proactively find gas stations along the way when you don’t have enough fuel to get to your destination and selecting a location near your route with the lowest price. Today, using your smartphone to complete the same task would be possible, but it would require dipping in and out of several apps, something that is tough to do in the middle of your morning commute. A key concept at Here is that of every day driving — in other words, enhancing your drive along the routes you take all the time, where you don’t need voice-guided turn by turn navigation as much as you need proactive help with real time details such as refueling, parking availability, sharing your ETA with friends or coworkers and so on.

Much of that expanded vision of what users will want from their cars will be tough for smartphone makers alone to deliver. It will take deep integration between the carmaker, technology providers, a variety of data sources, and much more. Along with the issue of penetrating more than just the head-unit display, this is the other factor that makes me believe Apple and Google might need to go beyond their current in-car offerings to something more deeply integrated, or potentially to building cars themselves.