Needed: Cars as Smart as Smart Phones

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As part of my research for this week’s column on tech-savvy cars, I got to spend a few days test-driving a 2012 Ford Focus Titanium hatchback that was decked out with MyFord Touch, an advanced infotainment system with an 8-inch color touchscreen, voice input and output, Bluetooth, multiple jacks for hooking up external devices, and an SD slot. I used it for navigation, music from multiple sources, and other purposes, and mostly enjoyed the experience–as much as I like my 2004 Mazda 3, its DVD-based navigation system and CD changer are going to feel quaint for awhile until I begin to forget my time with the Focus.

But as nifty as MyFord and other new dashboard computers are, I’m also struck by the fact that they’ve yet to catch up with smartphone operating systems and apps when it comes to pure sophistication and interface polish. MyFord’s speech recognition and touch input were both laggy at times, for instance. And even though it has a big, high-resolution screen at its disposal, it doesn’t always use it very efficiently. When I had the navigation system up and was listening to a Rosemary Clooney song on satellite radio, the display needlessly truncated her name to “Rosemary.”

I get that car manufacturers operate under government regulations, safety requirements, and other restrictions that limit their ability to keep up with the rest of the tech industry. But I still wonder if automobile-based interfaces could take a great leap forward if one or more of the companies involved in designing smart-phone software got involved. (Ford’s system is based on Microsoft’s Windows Embedded operating system–there’s even a Microsoft logo on the dashboard–but as I understand things, Microsoft didn’t have a whole lot to do with the user interface except for the speech input and output. It certainly has nothing in common with Windows Phone 7.)

As I say in the column, I crave car tech that’s as slick as something like the amazing Siri iPhone app, which is now owned by Apple. I don’t see Apple getting into the automotive game in a serious way, though–it likes to build things it can fully control, and the idea of Apple engineers and car-company engineers trying to collaborate sounds just plain ugly. (Maybe someone in Detroit or Japan should throw money at some of Apple’s top iOS software folks until they’re willing to leave Cupertino and work on next-generation car systems.) (More on See the ALL-TIME 100 gadgets list)

But Google? It would probably love to create an in-car computer. In fact, it’s already working on ones that are so smart that they can drive the car. Even before self-steering Googlemobiles are available, an Android-based infotainment system could be pretty cool. Given Google’s limitless ambitions and Android’s open-source nature, I’d be startled if Android didn’t show up in cars in some form at some point.

RIM, incidentally, is already in the smarter-car business: It owns QNX, whose real-time operating system serves as a foundation for both the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook and the electronics in cars from multiple manufacturers. At CES, the RIM booth even had a concept dashboard with a dock for a PlayBook. But QNX focuses on building fast, reliable plumbing, and leaves the apps and interfaces to the automakers it works with.

All I ask is that car infotainment catches up with smartphones in the reasonably near future–say, by the time I’m ready to trade in my Mazda 3 for something newer and cooler.

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