At last, some Apple simplicity on our dashboards

Finally — and I won’t say “just in the nick of time” since it’s already way too late as far as I am concerned — Apple might be getting into the in-car infotainment business. It’s only the musings of a first foray, but the company did announce at the recent World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco that General Motors, Toyota, BMW and a host of other automakers will integrate Apple’s vaunted Siri “concierge” service into their cars.

It’s all part of upcoming IOS 6 revisions — which include, as well as the automotive updates, a new in-house mapping function, better Facebook integration, superior messaging and a new Passbook feature to keep track of boarding passes, tickets and gift cards — that finally sees some Apple in our dashboards. And though still in its infancy — indeed, these are the babiest of steps — the idea of integrating an iPhone’s mapping service into cars would seem obvious. In fact, everyone — and that includes this techno-luddite — is already doing it, opting for their smartphone’s “Maps” function instead of the complicated onboard navigational aid. From a marketing perspective, this would seem to be a no-brainer; after all, why would consumers opt for an automaker’s expensive, clunky on-board system when their iPhone comes with a superior system for free?

But let’s hope that the Mac integration doesn’t stop there. Let’s put aside for the moment the question of whether we actually want more distractions inside the car — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is starting to put up a tougher fight against in-car infotainment systems — and simply ruminate on the sorry state of onboard electronics. Have you ever tried to return to the seat heater function in a Ford after playing with the navigational system? Has any BMW owner ever manually changed a radio station on an early iDrive system? And is there anything more frustrating than following some damnable navigation system’s routing instructions for hours only to find out that the freakin’ “avoid highways” function was somehow activated and you can’t find the darn submenu to shut it down?

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in the study of haptics to realize that the current state of automotive electronics is pitiful. The question is why more than a decade after BMW introduced that first wonky iDrive system are the available systems so terribly complicated and so user unfriendly? Why haven’t any automakers just commissioned Apple (as Ford did Microsoft) to recreate the iPhone experience in-car? Or, failing an agreement with the notoriously difficult (but now sadly departed) Steve Jobs, do what every other smartphone manufacturer did and simply copy the Apple interface?

Though others might posit more complicated answers, I think it comes down to simple hubris and the corporate need for control. With the exception of Cadillac — and, not so ironically, Cadillac’s new CUE User Interface is one of the best proprietary systems mainly because its interface most closely emulates Apple’s — which admitted a desire to work directly with Cupertino on its interface, most automakers, or at least their design studios, scoff at any suggestion that emulating Apple would be a simple route to making their interfaces more user friendly.

Just as big an issue is that the engineers behind the software can’t restrain themselves from overcomplicating the command structure. Armed with an onboard computer and a giant LCD screen, they seemingly can’t resist cramming every possible function on to their hard drives. The end result is the endless sea of submenus that must be navigated when all you want to do is adjust the lumbar support’s massaging function. Indeed, Cadillac’s interface team says the biggest challenge it faced in designing the new CUE system was saying no to the vehicle engineers.

The truly troubling aspect of all this is the sheer egotism of these decisions. The consuming public has already spoken. And loudly. Apple owns three-quarters of the tablet business. The entire smartphone industry has capitulated and now simply emulates the iPhone model. Can there be anyone anywhere in the industrialized world — indeed anywhere — not familiar with the company’s graphics-based apps system? It’s as universal as Coca-Cola and rock ’n’ roll. Yet each and every auto manufacturer insists on designing its own proprietary system, as if the handful of engineers and designers it devotes to the task will somehow out-smart the 60,000-plus Apple employees whose sole function is to make our integration into the digital world easier.

Our lives are already complicated enough. There’s a good argument that all the Tea Party, Occupy and anti- capitalist movements are, in part, a rejection of a world that’s become too complicated for the average person. And, yet, when we do manage to adopt one modern interaction with ease, the automakers come along and say, “We know you like this user interface, but if you want to drive our cars, you’re going to have to learn another more complicated one. And if you dare to change brands, we’re going to make you relearn the entire process all over again.”

If that’s not the epitome of corporate hubris, I don’t know what is.

Photograph by: Audi