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We were promised smartphones on wheels

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But we’re still waiting for infotainment to be intuitive

Many people say cars are smartphones on wheels, but after a visit to the Detroit Auto Show, it’s clear that’s not the case.

On the contrary, the newest in-car technology we saw shows that automakers are still playing catch-up with features already available in the iPhone X, and they haven’t reconciled how to keep pace. The result is more confusing infotainment systems for customers whose top priorities are the best, effortless-to-use tech features.

One short-term solution that serves as a bandage is the further adaptation of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in current models. Toyota and Lexus, among the industry’s last holdouts, announced that they will be bringing both features into their cars, but even the terms of use aren’t straightforward. BMW, which charges for CarPlay, will make it a subscription-based service, an announcement that has caused much confusion. Will people want to pay for these features?

The new Jetta’s touchscreen interface.
Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

The seventh-generation Volkswagen Jetta debuted in Detroit, and with it comes the option for a new digital cockpit, a by-product of VW’s switch to the MQB platform used by other models like the Atlas or the Golf. Touchscreen controls alter the gauges that appear as an image in place of traditional instrument panel. The cockpit takes cues from Audi, VW’s big sister luxury brand that debuted the virtual cockpit. Through the Volkswagen MIB II infotainment touchscreen you can opt to switch on the Beats sound system, or manually alter the mood lighting. (Periwinkle blue was my favorite.) You can match your ambient lighting to match your driving mode of choice. It’s a small step in a new direction for a car that will be in dealerships in 2018.

Some automakers took screens to another level. The new Ram extended its big proportions into a massive 12-inch touchscreen, and used its fourth-generation Uconnect system, developed by Panasonic that we tested last year.

Other companies focused on further expanding partnerships with tech companies. Ford and Genesis were among the first brands to offer Amazon Alexa. BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Lexus will also add Alexa and Google Assistant. Panasonic, which makes infotainment systems for several automakers, announced a partnership with Amazon at CES, an indication that more carmakers will follow. It was notable that we didn’t see automakers showing off how this technology works in their vehicles through in-car demos. The standalone Amazon presence at the auto show was limited to a large booth promoting its show The Grand Tour, where Amazon gave out free fish and chips to journalists during press days. The lack of tech demos seems like a miss at an auto show, because consumers come to interact with the vehicles they may potentially buy.

In contrast, much of the in-car technology we saw teased at CES is nowhere to be found in Detroit. The Verge tested out the voice-activated MBUX system at CES, which debuts on the A-Class, but wasn’t at the auto show and won’t be available for us to test out in real-world conditions until later in the year. Mercedes-Benz design chief Gordon Wagner tells me the company is already working on the next version that will come out sometime in the next two years, offering additional features, but essentially using the same hardware setup. “Eventually we will come a situation where it will update over the air. But an entire system you can’t update over the air,” he says.

For the current MBUX system, Mercedes built its own voice assistant. Wagner says the questions that his team spends the most time considering are, “How is the screen shaped, and what’s on the screen, and what’s next to the screen? There’s this big trend called hyper analogue. I think this is more sustainable with increasing digitalization. There will be an increasing demand for analog design,” he says. “It’s great with the digital stuff with the hype and everything, but we forget we are analog people that want to look at and touch something. We must not forget the real world for the virtual world.”

The interior of the Nissan Xmotion concept.
Photo by Sean O'Kane / The Verge

The exception to the lack of next-level screens in Detroit was the Nissan XMotion SUV, an autonomous concept car that debuted on Monday. It has an over-the-top suite of seven touchscreens. Then there’s an additional screen where you’d normally stow your garage door opener that Nissan calls the “digital room mirror.” It displays cars on a screen in place of the rearview mirror. We couldn’t actually test out the cool features Nissan mentioned, like thumbprint and retina recognition to launch the images of a koi fish that serves as your personal assistant. It was only a concept, so we used our imagination as a mesmerizing video of said koi ran on a loop.

The other problem with touchscreens is that they lead to even more driver distractions. I drove a Volvo XC60 during my trip to Detroit. In our ScreenDrive series review, we found this system more intuitive than most. However, when I wanted to change something while driving, I found myself looking down and scrolling for music, a simple task I finally abandoned until I pulled over. At no time should I be able to fly down the freeway and be tempted to read a music menu on the screen.

It’s a tricky space that car design departments are tasked with solving. While many drivers wish their infotainment systems worked like their phones, the biggest deterrent to making your car too much like your phone is that you may look at it more than you’re supposed to (when your eyes should be on the road). Another issue is one of pure aesthetics. After testing out several infotainment systems at Cobo Center during the media days, I noticed a pattern: unlike your phone, where fingerprints are a nuisance, on the screen of your car, the glare is real. It’s a good thing I had a soft cloth in my bag, because I was constantly scrubbing off smudges left by my fingerprints. Through the lens of our screens, the future of driving is blurry.

Photos by Sean O’Kane / The Verge