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Marginal: Seamless

Why car companies need to make friends with consumer electronics firms.

On the last page of this issue, my colleague Chris Sawyer is, in effect, pissing and moaning about his experience trying to hook up his iPod to his 2003 Mini. He does make reference to his calling some BMW executives to task for their iDrive, pointing out that that interface was exceedingly complex and cumbersome. Now, with the simplification of the iDrive, it is mainly just complex and cumbersome, just not excessively so. While he, perhaps, expects that we all know this, it should be mentioned that the manufacturer of the future-retro car that he owns is the self-same Bavarian Motor Werks. And to BMW’s credit, it was early out of the box with an iPod interface for the vehicles that are adorned with that blue-and-white propeller logo.

Mr. Sawyer is vexed and tormented by the troubles of trying to link up his iPod with his car. And a consequence of this is his belief that it is “a big distraction . . . a technology best accessed before a trip.” Which is, of course, a wise decision. Driver distraction is a dangerous thing. But while not wanting to be a shill for Steve Jobs, it seems to me that he’s complaining about something that the iPod wasn’t designed for (i.e., his car). That it can be used at all in a car is a bonus, not a function that was taken into account by Apple engineers. Certainly people work to retrofit things to their purposes, but let’s not blame the original designers and engineers for that any more than the bizarre complaints that often turn into law suits (e.g., “Whaddya mean I can’t use my weed wacker as a dental flossing device?”).

One of the things that I have discovered while looking at some of the electronics developments for this issue is that a number of companies are working very hard to integrate the wonderful technology that has emerged from One Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California. Ford is hoping like mad that the Microsoft Sync technology will get people behind the wheel of the new Focus. And it is fairly evident that they recognize that those who will be plugging in a portable consumer electronics device will hooking up iPods, not Zunes (although they could). John Kill of Visteon said flat out that they’re not going to try to compete with Apple on the iPod, but that they want to work to make the integration as seamless as possible. And Mark Michmerhuizen, chief engineer of electronics of Johnson Controls, told me that one thing that excites him about the Mobile Device Gateway that they’ve developed and which could be available in 2010 model year vehicles is that it is “Cool that you can bring your digital music in a car and make it usable.” He acknowledges, “Yes, there are kits and auxiliary jacks, but that doesn’t give you much control,” especially not compared with the way that the JCI device replicates the iPod catalog structure (it doesn’t have memory to hold the music, as that would open up a can of DRM worms). Someone might have pointed that out to Mr. Sawyer before he bought all of those plugs and cables, but this would mean (a) waiting and (b) a new car.

What we’re seeing here is that vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers are taking to heart (mind and pocketbook) the fact that consumer electronics companies are better at, well, consumer electronics than they are. A lot better. Consequently, it is beneficial to take advantage of their products—and marketing, to boot. For too long, car companies have thought of themselves as the ones who can, in effect, call the shots. But this has led to consumers saying “No,” and there is an entire automotive audio aftermarket business that has grown up despite what the OEMs have done. Remember the Ford Taurus with the ovals everywhere, including around the audio head unit, that ostensibly would foil the replacement of the Ford sound with something more germane to teen spirit or audiophile listening? That didn’t stop the change. And how many companies have tried to make it so that the audio system was integral to the vehicle such that replacing it would unleash a hornet’s nest of bugs?

Is any vehicle manufacturer going to invent a better iPhone? Of course not. Nor should it even try. What it needs to do is to embrace the technologies that companies like Apple and Microsoft and Whomeverelse are developing and then working with their supply base to make sure that they can advantageously deploy them in their cars and trucks. That way there is the proverbial quadruple win: for them, for their suppliers, for the consumer electronics supplier, and for guys like Mr. Sawyer who will realize seamless integration. 

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