By Richard Read
The sad fact is, cell phones aren't perfect.
Sure, they keep us connected to friends around the globe, but they also make it possible for us to spend entire holiday dinners face down in Facebook, ignoring everyone around us. And that's to say nothing of mobile phones' tragic effect on auto fatality rates.
In a different way, cell phones are also wreaking havoc on car companies. To compete with increasingly ubiquitous smartphones, nearly every automaker on the planet has been developing its own in-dash infotainment system, each chock-full of navigation tools, music stations and supplementary apps. The goal? To strengthen the company's brand and boost revenue by creating a stream of subscriptions and never-ending upgrades. It worked for OnStar, right?
The problem is, unlike OnStar, most of these infotainment systems are inferior to the smartphones in our pockets and purses. And generally speaking, they're not getting better with time.
Ford Motor Company's (NYSE:F) MyFord Touch and SYNC are perhaps the best examples of what's wrong with automaker-devised infotainment: They're bloated, counter-intuitive, and ironically, they don't do a great job of syncing. In fact, they're so bad, that despite numerous software updates, MyFord Touch and SYNC have forced Ford toward the bottom of initial quality rankings. Some Ford customers have become so frustrated, they've filed a lawsuit against the automaker.
Stories like that make us wonder whether automakers belong in the infotainment business at all. Our general consensus is that they ought to back down, but we understand that they've invested millions of dollars and man-hours into these products, and waving the white flag won't be easy to do.
345 VIPS (VERY IMPORTANT PATENTS)
Apple hasn't been shy about its desire to dominate the dashboard. In fact, at last June's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple promised that by mid-2014, shoppers would be able to purchase new cars running a slimmed-down version of iOS for easier iPhone integration. The upgrade should be available on a range of vehicles from Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Honda, Ford and others.
Aiding Apple's efforts are the 35 patents it holds on automotive technology. One of those covers a programmable touch-screen display (not so different from your customizable iPhone screen), and another facilitates syncing between an automobile and mobile devices. Presumably, one of the 35 also covers user profiles that store preferences like seat height and radio stations in the cloud, creating a consistent experience for motorists no matter which vehicle they log into and drive.
Samsung (OTC:SSNLF), LG, Sony (NYSE:SNE), Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) hold a fair number of auto-related patents, too, but the mack-daddy of 'em all is Google (GOOG), with 310 patents on file. Quite a few of those are related to its high-profile self-driving car - like patent #8,457,827, which concerns "Modifying behavior of autonomous vehicle based on predicted behavior of other vehicles."
But Google isn't just thinking about autonomous cars. It has more mundane interests, too, as we learned this week, when the internet began whispering that Google and Audi will announce a joint infotainment project at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Though details are scarce, we have a hunch that the rumored product could look like an Android version of Apple's forthcoming dashboard operating system.
Eventually, we hope that car companies get the hint and step away from infotainment systems. They can design the screens on which we interact with those systems, but the software itself is best left to companies that have programming at their core.
Why? Because sheet metal and CSS are very different things. Automakers should focus on what they do best: designing good-looking rides that take us from Point A to Point B safely and stylishly.
The software that runs on those cars, however, should probably come from folks who can handle shorter turnaround times than the auto industry. From the lowliest start-up to giant firms like Apple and Google, software companies can bang out operating-system updates and post them in a matter of days, if not hours. There's no value judgment there; it's just something they do. Automakers should back up and give them room to do it. (Note: Ford may have figured this out.)
Of course, the situation becomes slightly more complicated when software and vehicle autonomy become the thing consumers look for first in a new car. When vehicles become fully autonomous, when they exist solely to entertain us on our morning commutes, will conventional car companies take a back seat to Apple, Google and others? Given the increasing number of automakers showing off rides at CES, the turning point may come sooner than we think.