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Mossberg: Apple and Google should win the war for the dashboard

Consumers deserve to use the experience they already know

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Re/code.

Silicon Valley is forcing its way onto Detroit's turf by building, or planning to build, cars. And that means there could be some big clashes, or at least some tense partnerships, in coming years. The big automakers are all seeking to learn from, and hire from, the tech industry. Some joint efforts are happening or being discussed. But, privately, at least some of the car companies worry that they may face wealthy, smart new competitors.

You don't have to wait for the future to get a taste of this. A small version of the coming changes — part partnership, part tension — is already playing out, right now, in car dealerships across the country. It's the question of who controls the dashboard, or at least that big center screen in the middle of it.

Automakers are reluctantly adding carplay and android auto, but only going so far

On one side stand Apple and Google, each of which has developed a system that, when you plug in your smartphone, takes over a car's navigation, communication, and audio systems with modified versions of the key apps on the phone. On the other side stand the automakers, slowly and reluctantly introducing these systems — called Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — but drawing a line on how far they can go.

Both Apple and Google boast around 40 carmakers who've committed to the new systems. Apple claims over 100 models already offer it. Google couldn't give me a number of car models deploying its system, saying the calculation was complicated by various trim levels. Most carmakers, but not all, will deploy both.

However, don't look for the two systems in every car you might want to buy, even if you really, really want to use your beloved Android or iOS features.

Some companies, like Toyota, have technically signed up (with Apple) but haven't put the system into any cars yet. Ford has just joined the party last week, for deployment later this year, but is hedging its bets with its own platform for apps in the car. And even enthusiastic adopters, like GM, still radiate reluctance about letting Apple and Google control additional in-cabin features, like the temperature and seating controls.

I've used various infotainment systems on several cars, including a couple of times as a regular car shopper at plain old dealerships, rather than in company demos. And my vote goes squarely to Apple and Google in this one.

I'd love for Apple and Google to take over the entire non-driving interface of the car's cabin

I don't know how well the tech behemoths can someday build an engine or transmission at scale. But I am convinced that they do a much better job on designing familiar, workable, in-cabin user interfaces that intelligently link the car with those smartphone functions that are safe to use while driving. In fact, I'd love to be able to opt for Apple and Google to expand their role and take over the entire non-driving interface inside the car's cabin.

When I first took a hard look at CarPlay and Android Auto, in a GM car last spring, scrolling past the Google or Apple functions to the carmaker's own screens of icons for controlling other things felt like going from Windows to DOS.

The idea behind CarPlay and Android Auto is the same: to remove the temptation to use your phone by routing the phone's core apps and its voice command system onto the dashboard.

You just plug in your phone, and the car's screen reflects its user interface. Google Now's voice system and Apple's Siri take over the car voice controls and can be launched from a steering wheel button. That way, you have a better chance of keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

To do this safely, some apps have been modified and, in some cases, limited. For instance, for texting, neither company displays the written text on the screen or allows you to type responses. Instead, each uses its voice systems to read the text and let you dictate a response. But, in my experience, even the modified functions of the Apple and Google systems are far superior to any automaker's system I've used, even in luxury cars.

My last three cars have been a Mercedes, a BMW, and a Lexus. I chose them all because, at the time, they seemed to do a good job with device integration and voice commands. In the end, all disappointed and annoyed me with their failures in these areas.

For instance, on my 2014 Lexus IS, the car's navigation system is so clumsy and inferior to Google or even Apple Maps that I just use my iPhone when I need guidance to somewhere unfamiliar, propping it up in a cupholder. It can be distracting, but it works better than the Lexus system, and offers the benefit of being on the internet to pull traffic and other data.

The Lexus' voice system is also terribly frustrating. Half the time it tells me that my phone's contact list or song collection is being "prepared" for voice commands and can't be commanded by voice. The rest of the time, getting the desired result is a crapshoot. If I say "call home," the pricey Lexus often assumes I mean "go home."

The biggest advantage of CarPlay and Android Auto is that you already know them

A few weeks ago, I test-drove a much less costly Honda Accord with CarPlay using my own iPhone 6S, and the experience was a thousand times better. Everything just worked, including navigation, Siri, and third-party apps like Pandora, Audible, and Spotify.

And it isn't just my own cars. Back in 2010, when I reviewed Ford's supposedly revolutionary MyFord Touch in-cabin control system, I praised some aspects of it, but warned: "Ford's new user interface has so many options and functions that I believe it presents a challenging learning curve. Learning the new system can be distracting while driving."

And that's the biggest advantage of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: you already know them, because they are pretty much just like your phone. Whether you use their functions via a car's touchscreen, or via their superior voice systems, you are on familiar ground.

You're not forced to learn a new user interface and use a system that, unlike the phones', knows nothing about your history and habits. You may be in your car, and there may be some compromises, but it feels a lot like the rest of your life with your phone.

In an interview, Patrick Brady, who heads up Android Auto at Google, told me: "We are trying to create a seamless experience with the outside world when you get into your car, so you don't have to learn a new system." Apple executives involved with CarPlay who I interviewed, while declining to be quoted, made the same point.

In fact, I'd argue that adopting and expanding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is a safety issue. By sparing drivers from having to use a new and often more complex cabin user interface, the two systems actually reduce distraction.

But some car companies remain wary. For instance, at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, a very senior executive from a very large automaker told me on background that things like the controls for a car's heating and cooling system, or its seat position controls, couldn't be ceded to Apple or Google. The reason? They are too close to government regulatory compliance.

This is a safety issue

Last year, in an interview with me at Recode's Code Conference, GM CEO Mary Barra announced the rollout of CarPlay and Android Auto on the Chevrolet car line. But, when asked by Verge Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel why she didn't just turn over all dashboard screen controls to the tech companies, she said the line had been drawn. She explained: "it's a very complicated system in the vehicle ... there's much more integration in systems in the vehicle than people understand."

I'm no auto engineer, but it's hard for me to believe that some of this isn't just the car companies not wanting to give up complete control of the dashboard, even for non-driving functions, to somebody else. Especially when that somebody else might one day be a full-fledged competitor.

But, for the sake of consumers, they should.