Cars have become expensive rolling gadgets, full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we’ll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.
The sounds of shrieking and yelling in a car shouldn’t be normal for most people — unless you own a family van. But inside the eight-seat 2018 Honda Odyssey, the screaming didn’t come from young children fighting over headphones for the built-in TV monitor, or what movie to watch. The shriekers were my adult passengers, freaking out over a live camera feed of their faces displayed on the main infotainment screen.
In a world where we tape over our laptop cameras and wonder if our smart home speakers are actively listening even when they’re not called upon, it’s no surprise that some people are averse to any potential form of surveillance. Interior-facing cameras are typically found in police cars or taxi cabs — not personal vehicles. To be fair, none of those vehicles are also designed to be family friendly, so in my brief week with the Odyssey, I started wondering if constant monitoring is just something we’re conditioning people to get accustomed to from a young age.
Let’s backtrack and talk about the screen itself. The 2018 Honda Odyssey’s main infotainment display has been entirely refreshed from last year’s model, as the company has moved from its own HondaLink system to a faster, updated version built on Android Lollipop. The 8-inch display looks and feels like a mounted tablet, with right-aligned Home and Return buttons and large icons on the screen for you to swipe through. There’s a horizontal status bar across the top that also lets you add shortcuts to your most frequented menu items, such as Maps, Radio, or Android Auto. The HD display is crisp and clear, with bright colors differentiating each menu icon.
But, like most tablets, the glossy surface also means the screen is prone to messy fingerprint smears. The Odyssey’s screen is so shiny that every touch retains the grease from your fingertip, making it difficult to glance at when driving on a sunny day.
Thankfully, this problem is mitigated by the secondary screen ahead of the wheel. Most entry-level cars use this screen to display additional information, such as remaining fuel, current song, or your Bluetooth-paired phone’s recently dialed numbers. The Odyssey’s secondary screen, like many newer, higher-end model cars, offers turn-by-turn directions ahead of the wheel, so you don’t have to shift your eyes to the right or listen to the Odyssey’s awful robot voice. You can also use buttons on the wheel to switch between Honda’s system and Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, or even change the audio from whatever is playing on the radio to whatever your passengers are watching / listening to on the back TV screen.
Speaking of the back TV screen, the 10.2-inch single-image WSVGA display has been updated with some built-in entertainment apps, too. There are a variety of child-friendly entertainment apps, such as PBS Kids Video and HappyKids.TV, and one that coordinates a rocket ship with your current drive time to show how long you’ve been on the road. (I imagine this one gets old quickly.)
There are apps for older audiences, too, including Epix and Spotify, which come preinstalled in the Odyssey. I was unable to find parental controls or password protection for adult content for these apps, meaning kids could easily access content not meant for their eyes and ears. Shortly after the Odyssey came on the market, some drivers noticed that the Epix app failed to remove an Erotic section, offering backseat passengers a library of sexually explicit content. Honda has since updated the software to remove this category, but kids might still be able to stream expletive-laden songs on Spotify. The week I drove the Odyssey, Lil Yachty’s Teenage Emotions had just dropped, so it was the first thing I clicked on after the app loaded. (The chorus to Yachty’s opening song, “Like a Star,” goes: “I'd rather do it than say and I done did it all before / I done had sex with six different whores at the same time on they grandmother's back porch.”)
To note, these streaming apps only work if you’re opting to pay for the monthly AT&T 4G LTE service offered for the Odyssey Touring and Elite models, so beyond parental controls, you’ll also need to consider the additional charge on top of upgrading to the most premium tier.
The last “display” technically associated with the Odyssey is the accompanying CabinControl smartphone app, which lets you adjust temperature, make TV screen selections, or collaborate with other passengers in the car to create a “social playlist.” I mostly avoided the app; it was just easier to use the wheel’s buttons to control the car. Also, the color selections in the app’s UI are downright atrocious. See for yourself below:
The 2018 Odyssey does away with a traditional gear stick (or even a rotational dial) and replaces the shift system with buttons, which makes the car feel even more like a rolling computer. The D / S button takes center stage, and color-coordinated lights around the button indicate which gear has been selected. To avoid accidentally picking reverse, Honda has cleverly designed the button so it works more like a lateral trigger; you have to tug down rather than tap to make that selection.
I also liked the built-in Qi wireless charging pad in the middle of the front two seats. It’s only got room to accommodate one device, and you have to avoid putting anything else on it (such as keys or a wallet) to ensure the charge goes through. But as long as your phone or phone case is Qi-compatible, this is a great solution to maintaining battery power without untangling USB cords. Don’t throw away that cord just yet, though: to use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, you still need to plug the phone into the car.
Above the cupholder there’s a DVD player under the main control panel, where you can play movies for the TV monitor in the back. The built-in apps should have enough content to keep passengers occupied on a trip. But if you do plan to bring DVDs, just know that only the two front seat passengers can safely change out the disc while the car is moving.
As mentioned before, the infotainment system is based on Android Lollipop, which means Honda is still on its own for a voice-activated assistant. Unfortunately, this means the entire voice experience is absolutely terrible.
First, to activate voice command, you press a button on the right side of the wheel. Standard. Except doing so brings up a screechy chirp sound that startled 100 percent of passengers who took a spin in my Odyssey. (All eight people from test drives jolted out of their seats or audibly yelped upon hearing it.) Honda’s voice assistant is also difficult to use: it sounds robotic and monotone, and would often mishear my commands. With Honda’s Garmin-powered satellite system, a request for an address in Brooklyn brought up a destination in Kansas, which would make sense if there were exact addresses there, too, but the numbers and street names were entirely off — regardless of which person in the car spoke the command. Even if it heard the correct address, I would have at least expected the Odyssey to use its GPS location to prioritize results closer to my current spot if I didn’t specify a city or state. Other voice commands, such as adjusting the temperature, also contained so many steps that you’re better off just reaching over a few inches and adjusting things manually.
Which finally brings us to the Odyssey’s latest tech feature: CabinWatch. (Even the word watch is in the name!) Tapping this allows you to get a look at the second passenger row, or switch to a bird’s-eye view to peek at the third. There’s also an accompanying CabinTalk button, which acts like a PA system, which you can use to talk to backseat riders if they’re using headphones to watch the rear screen. It’s like piloting your own airplane... on land. CabinTalk stops the audio from whatever is playing on the speakers and lets you make your announcement. It only works well when the riders are wearing their Odyssey headphones while watching the backseat TV screen, however; otherwise, the sound echoes, so you’re better off with the OG route: yelling. (Note: the car does not come with enough headphones to accommodate all six backseat passengers.) CabinTalk only has a microphone built into the driver’s seat, so passengers can’t respond back without also yelling. Sorry, kids. You’re only meant to be seen, not heard.
CabinWatch has infrared night vision, too, but I found that once it automatically swapped to that mode, I never got it to come back out. The camera feed remained purple throughout the rest of the week, regardless of sunlight pouring in from the moon roof, which added to the dystopian effect.
Will families find CabinWatch genuinely useful? Ahead of receiving the Odyssey, I read an article about a mother who witnessed her daughter attempting to strangle her infant sister in the rear mirror. If I saw something like that in HD display, I’d probably crash my car. Most of us would hope to never be in that situation, but it feels potentially distracting to literally watch your children’s behavior while you’re driving. Once my passengers got over the screaming, they actually thought it was funny to see themselves on the screen — but with so many other entertainment features already built into the car, this one feels unintended. For now, the good thing is that the camera doesn’t save any video; even though the car comes with built-in apps, is connected to Wi-Fi on the road, and has a live camera feed, none of the footage goes anywhere, but stays within the Odyssey. With always-watching cameras like Google Clips promising the same local storage, I reckon companies will find it difficult for customers to come around and trust that the device won’t get hacked altogether if it seems like the components to get footages and sounds online are present. Let’s pray that connected cars aren’t the 2018 botnet.
In many ways, the 2018 refresh of the Odyssey makes it feel much more like a computer than most cars on the road. But for me, some of the best features aren’t technological at all. They’re things like the Magic Slide configuration that gives you more options for rearranging seats, and the built-in vacuum cleaner in the trunk. If you’re looking to buy this car for your family, my hunch says these will likely be the most valuable features for you, too.