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The Next Frontier for Automakers: The Cockpit

navigation-system[1] There once was a time when the cutting edge of technology for consumers existed with the automobile industry, but those days are long gone. Without a doubt the fastest-changing industry right now is the mobile electronics market. Palm’s Treo brought the “smartphone” to millions of consumers hands about 8 years ago. Since that point, though, the market has dramatically changed with the introduction of the iPhone, Android, and the soon-to-be-released Windows 7 Phones. How much have cars changed in 8 years? As one can see from this 3-year old Toyota Camry dashboard, not much. This is the illogical, poor user-interface that has been a staple for Toyota since the early part of the last decade. Next to the iPhone and the Nexus One it looks downright silly.

Because people are keeping their cars 4-8 years, it makes little sense for auto manufacturers to try reinventing the driver-interaction wheel. By the time their product goes to market it will be outdated. Factory-installed GPS devices stand as shining examples of this. In very little time these expensive systems wind up as outdated relics compared to the continually current offerings on Android phones and the iPhone.

Ford introduced its excellent Sync system by Microsoft which features Bluetooth stereo connections and a fully functional wired iPod interface. However it insists that it do all of the heavy lifting and comes with many strings attached. For example, in order to use the system’s hard disc drive to store music, one must sit in their car and rip all of their CD’s one by one. Didn’t the consumer already go through this laborious process in their house a few years ago when they committed to a portable mp3 player? For’d Sync system can deliver weather and traffic information, but it requires a subscription. Why would I buy these when my iPhone gives me this data for free? Sync also offers integrated Sirius radio, but if I rarely exit 3G wireless coverage zones, why would I buy this when I can get Pandora for free on my phone?

With the turnover rate of portable devices being roughly 1/3 of the turnover time for car ownership, there really is no reason for auto makers to even try to compete on these fronts. With internet access more ubiquitous in the ensuing years, there is no way car makers can continue with their model.

Advanced control systems in cars usually divide their functions into four categories: 1) Diagnostics and controls, 2) Climate Control, 3) Navigation, 4) Audio/Phone. There really is no reason for the car to run these latter two. What should auto makers pursue? They should pursue a large in-dash screen that acts as a capacitive-touchscreen client for a docked mobile smartphone. While the car maker could continue to make their own GUI for the first two sections, the car’s 5-7” in-dash screen should simply be an external display for the iPhone in the other two realms. Let the newer devices featuring user interfaces more familiar to the driver do the heavy lifting.

Of course, safety is a big concern. So, the phone should be aware that it has been docked to a car system, triggering a “Car Mode”. This mode would only enable apps that have been approved for moving cars. The iPod interface should only have large print type, and remain extremely easy to navigate while moving. The phone’s navigation system in this mode would disable most of the NAV controls when the car is moving. Other music apps, like Pandora and Slacker, could work fine in this mode, given that they prioritize button size and function over large album art.

Honestly there really is no reason that the carmaker couldn’t sell or give apps for its diagnostics and climate controls, too. The car’s system could come with a standard UI for non-smartphone users. However the smartphone versions of those apps could feature upgraded and customizable interfaces that run in place of the standard UI in the presence of the docked smartphone.

We are on the verge of some sweeping changes in the auto industry. Auto makers have pretty much mastered safety as well as planned obsolescence. What they have failed to do is excite car buyers in the last 15 years. There are only minor differences offered to consumers in today’s car market. The next frontier in design, though, is in the cockpit. The automaker who makes a driver experience that best leverages already popular and quickly-evolving mobile devices will gain an enormous advantage over its competition.