Historically, cars and smartphones developed in parallel on wildly different timescales. In the smartphone revolution’s formative years, Apple and Samsung reinvented their devices every twelve months like clockwork; the automotive industry, meanwhile, spent half a decade or more designing a new model, having it certified by regulatory bodies around the world, scaling up production and releasing it.
This mismatch in pacing put these industries on a collision course: As automakers rushed to put navigation systems and concierge services in their cars that were outdated by the time they rolled off the assembly line, smartphone and mobile data use exploded, often covering the same ground (Google Maps, Yelp, the list goes on). While iOS and Android — and the apps they offered — improved immeasurably over the span of half a decade, the systems in our cars barely moved. Even the most forward-thinking in-car systems like Ford’s SYNC were panned for being slow, finicky and complex. And unlike a phone, it’s much more difficult to swap out your car every year or two.
The introduction of Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto were designed to solve this conflict. By supporting these systems and ceding control of entertainment and navigation systems to Google and Apple, automakers could bring the world of mobile apps and familiar and beloved user experiences to consumers. Automakers also could stop plowing resources into unfamiliar areas and focus on what they do best — making cars — while iOS and Android would finally have a way to integrate cleanly without a suction-cup mount on the windshield…
The glacial pacing of the auto industry relative to the consumer electronics industry is at least partly to blame, but it’s not the only culprit; after all, GM now offers CarPlay on a majority of the vehicles that it sells. A deeper issue, I believe, is pride — a sense that automakers are at risk of losing their identities by ceding control of the dashboard to Silicon Valley. The companies that have not committed to offering CarPlay or Android Auto are often quick to mention that they’re only acting in the best interest of their customers and trying to deliver the best experience possible.
But here’s the thing: They have proven time and again that they are not able to deliver the best experience possible. It’s not their fault, really — the cards stacked against them are manifold: The slower development cycle, the learning curve of a UI entirely different from that of our smartphones, the inability to achieve scale with a proprietary in-car app platform. But while this plays out, customers — everyday car buyers – are the pawns in a global tug-of-war. No one wins…
The generation of vehicles that’s rolling off assembly lines today is likely the last one where buyers won’t consider excellent smartphone integration a basic, must-have feature. Over the next several years, automakers will come to understand this, one negative customer interaction at a time. Eventually, CarPlay support will be a universally standard feature, no different from air conditioning or power windows.
Often, carmakers need a boot in the butt to adopt technology they weren’t instrumental in developing. The world of hotrodders – in every nation that has folks who want to go a little faster, whether it’s in a straight line or around a bunch of corners – have given us everything from extractive exhaust systems to aerodynamics. And it hasn’t always been speed as the target. Technical efficiency works as well for economy as power. Turbocharging has proven that.
Time to let the geeks loose, folks.