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Dudder: iCarumba!

Apologies to Bart Simpson—and BMW—for thinking the iPod was the interface king, and iDrive the dud.

Recently I went out and bought the various connectors necessary to both charge and listen to my iPod while driving. Though newer vehicles have direct connectivity, my 2003 Mini Cooper wasn’t blessed with this technical functionality as the iPod was not the model of audio ubiquity it is today when that car was under development in the late 1990s. So connecting it in such a way that it will operate through the audio system requires a few wires and such strewn about the cabin, and a few compromises.

Using the iPod under ordinary circumstances couldn’t be simpler, a fact I discovered with my original, large form-factor five-gigabyte model many years ago, and which accounts, in large part, for the music player’s phenomenal success. Everything should be so easy and intuitive, an opinion I often repeated in the presence of BMW executives as they discussed the latest version of the clunky and complicated iDrive. Placing hundreds of commands under the control of a substantial—and satisfyingly tactile—controller makes no sense when you have to scroll through menu after menu looking for functions previously controlled by a button or other mechanical device. Why couldn’t it be more simple—and intuitive—like an iPod? That’s when reality came and smacked me in the face.

Attaching an iPod to a vehicle in the manner I did put it about on par with the original iDrive in that it required refocusing concentration on a device containing menu after menu and controlled by a click wheel, the iPod equivalent of the iDrive controller. (Systems that integrate iPod functionality into the steering wheel controls make its use much, much simpler and less distracting.) It was frustrating, though this was only an audio player, not a device that controlled everything from the sound system to the navigation to the temperature in the cabin—and more. But you could see how the iPod wasn’t quite as simple and intuitive when choosing to use it while driving. In fact, it became a big distraction, and was relegated to a technology best accessed before a trip, even if that meant not making full use of the device’s ability to play the songs I want to hear when I want to hear them. In other words, it was about as functional as the radio, though it still was mercifully free of commercials.

There are, of course, new technologies that take care of some of the frustrations, including on-board hard drives that let you bring your music into the car, but free of any third-party player. Plus, they also have the capacity to place other functions, like navigation, on the drive thus eliminating the need for separate devices. What they can’t do, however, is change the interaction between the driver and said information in a way that is as simple and easy as pushing buttons or turning knobs in discrete systems was before cars became so content rich. Yet there is no use in crying over the lack of direct control over a system as no one wants to go back in time to the days when new cars had AM radios, optional air conditioning, and setting these units was a reach out and guess ritual. Complexity is here to stay.

What will change, however, are the controls themselves, especially as technologies like virtual controls (a single set of buttons or rotary dials that can perform multiple functions for multiple devices, but eliminate the hard-packed complexity of trying to control everything through a single controller a la iDrive), conversational voice activation (a cross between Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the computer from Star Trek), and display technologies meld to create a hybrid that allows direct access to particular functions with minimal distraction. Increasingly, these interfaces will require connectivity with hand-held devices like iPods or—more likely—new versions of the iPhone that combine multiple devices into a single package. And while this will require automakers to accept a lower volume for hard-wired onboard devices than they might otherwise wish, it also will require that consumer electronic devices seamlessly synch with new vehicles. Which seems to me like a more useful pursuit than producing Internet-enabled home appliances, though having a refrigerator let you know it’s low on milk before you get the accusing tone asking why you forgot to pick up more milk on the way home does have some value. 

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