Technology advances rapidly, but why haven’t infotainment systems gotten any better?
More recently, computer and smartphone software has evolved to the point of near standardization. Not only are there only a small variety of operating systems to choose from when buying a phone or computer but many of the available products are also strikingly similar. Not so in the world of the automobile. The infotainment system, an attempt at consolidating the increasingly diverse abilities of the car onto one easy to use console, has been a failure since day one. Here are the top five ways in which it has let us down.
1) As confusing and cluttered as it may be, separating the audio, climate control, and navigation systems has the benefit of making controls easily accessible. On the other hand, some newer vehicles require a driver to dig through menus to make any changes to the climate control or the radio station, which turns the experience into a headache. It’s not that automakers should do away with infotainment systems, it’s just that these gadgets need to be made to be easier to use. This means studying how to improve both the software and the hardware to make it easier to control a lag-free system. Some automakers have done a good job at this, but others have had decades to improve and have only made marginal gains.
2) At best, a poorly designed infotainment system is a nuisance to use but at worst, it can be deadly. A study conducted in 2013 found that taking one’s eyes off the road to preform tasks requiring seeing and manually inputting information, such as typing an address into the GPS or scrolling to find a radio station, can increase the risk of a crash by 200%. To mitigate the risk, the NHTSA even implemented voluntary guidelines for automaker infotainment systems in 2013, but this has done little to solve the problem. Instead, it may have made things worse since drivers would rather pull out their smartphones and use a navigation app rather than pull over and put their cars in park.
3) One of the largest failures of the infotainment system is that almost all of its functions can be done by a smartphone. Hands free calling and texting is made easy thanks to sophisticated voice recognition software that far outclasses any system made by an automaker. Entertainment is also made easy thanks to a myriad of music apps that, even when the phone is plugged into the car, are usually only accessible by looking at and using the phone and can not be accessed using the car’s controls. Smartphone navigation apps are also typically more effective than the software made by automakers given that, unlike standout navigation systems in cars, smartphone software is widely shared and is therefore constantly being improved upon.
4) When Google first rolled out its Android operating system, it left the software open for any smartphone manufacturer to use. Even Apple and its closed ecosystem made it so that app developers could exercise free reign over the creative development of apps. Both of these moves effectively made it so that the best software was the one that got downloaded the most. Externalizing these tasks allow the experts to do their jobs, which is something we do for almost everything else. Get arrested? Hire a lawyer. Having a baby? Rush to see the doctor. It’s not that doing these things oneself is bad, it's just that the experts tend to do it better. Automakers have proven that they aren't infotainment experts, so maybe it’s best to leave it to those who are.
5) The culture of not sharing input hardware and infotainment software is the biggest failure on the part of the automakers. However failures are there to teach us how not to do something, and the chance to redo it and do it better eventually emerges. While the infotainment issue may not be solved anytime soon, automakers can learn from their struggles and prevent this logic from making its way into the next great technological shift happening in the auto world: autonomy. Currently automakers like Fisker are waiting on parts suppliers like Mobileye or Bosch to roll out self-driving hardware software before it installs it in their cars. If all automakers did this, the best developer of autonomy would be the top pick.
However you can bet that all of the auto giants are working on this process individually, and that may cause issues to emerge. A format war is normal for emerging technologies, but once the best route is found, it’s important that automakers find a way to share information on how to most effectively build a self-driving car, especially since there are lives at stake this time around.