After years of being treated as an interesting side business, automobiles have become the next target for Apple and Google, with Apple assigning 200 engineers to work on electric vehicle technology and Google saying it sees the public going driverless within five years. The most immediate battle, however, is the development of the next generation dashboard systems. Continue reading

In recent years, in-dash electronics have seen substantial growth and increased popularity among automobile buyers. Not only does it allow drivers to link to their cellphone or connect to an iPod or other music device, but built-in navigation, vehicle controls for climate and lighting, and apps that remind you where you parked or whether you locked the doors have become increasingly popular. Continue reading

Consumer complaints about Ford’s new infotainment system, MyFord Touch, are not going unnoticed, as Ford prepares to send customers a free upgrade to make their system more user friendly. When the digital control system was launched last year, Ford said that it would combine modern consumer electronic screens and controls that will eventually become the industry standard. Instead, the new technology resulted in Ford dropping considerably in quality by both Consumer Reports and JD Power & Associates annual quality rankings.

Fortunately for Ford, the digital technology also makes it easy and affordable for Ford to improve the usability of the system. According to Ford’s director of electronics engineering, Graydon Reitz, the new system will be less cluttered and easier to use, with virtual buttons and voice recognition responding more rapidly in the new version. Customers with an earlier version of MyFord Touch systems will be able upgrade the systems themselves through a USB port in the car.

Cadillac hopes to distinguish its luxury brand from others, by offering an in car data, navigation and media system with a touch screen tablet computer. According to Micky Bly, GM’s executive director of global electric systems and infotainment, “The Cadillac User Experience (CUE) will offer a broad range of data and applications beyond what our competitors offer. People have become accustomed to iPhone, iPad and Droid device navigation, that it only makes sense to offer it in our vehicles.”

CUE will pair entertainment and information data from up to 10 Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices, USBs, SD cards and MP3 players with the CUE system. The system reduces complexity through customized information, natural voice commands, fewer buttons and larger icons. Consumers can store those mobile devices as well as channel the information on those devices, along with your navigation tools, weather maps with Doppler radar, AM/FM and XM radio, instant messages and emails, through a central portal in your Cadillac. This system will allow the driver to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

To improve simplicity and connectivity for consumers, CUE will feature several auto industry firsts:

  • Proximity Sensing: As the user’s hand approaches the elegant, uncluttered LCD screen, command icons appear. Icons can be customized and arranged by consumers to improve ease of use.
  • Haptic Feedback: Buttons on the fully capacitive faceplate pulse when pressed to acknowledge the driver’s commands and keeps the driver’s eyes on the road.
  • Multi-Touch Hand Gestures: interactive motions (tap, flick, swipe and spread) popularized by smartphones and tablets allow tasks on the LCD screen, such as scrolling lists, zooming maps and searching favorites to be easily accomplished.
  • 12.3 in. LCD reconfigurable gauge cluster (on select models) offers four selectable displays – Simple, Enhanced, Balanced and Performance – that can mix traditional vehicle data such as a speedometer and fuel gauge with navigation, entertainment and 3D vehicle image.
  • Natural Speech Recognition: lets consumers speak logically with fewer specific commands to recall stored media or input navigation destinations. CUE’s text-to-speech feature will also allow consumers to receive text messages by system voice and to send recorded text messages in return.
  • Linux operating system, “open source” software platform and ARM 11 3-core processor, each operating at 400 million of instructions (mips) per second. This efficient hardware setup offers 3.5 times more processing power; than current infotainment systems, and allow developers to write applications to CUE that be downloaded by consumers.

CUE will debut in 2012 in the Cadillac XTS and ATS luxury sedans and SRX luxury crossover.

The modern car interface can do everything from making a dinner reservation to reading your text messages. In order to do this, an array of knobs and buttons are needed on the dashboard making the use of the system much more confusing. Sam Grobart, the Times’ personal technology editor, shows us three different interface systems that are trying to solve this problem. He test drives the Acura ZDX, Ford Focus, and the Audi A8 and finds that making our lives easier can often be frustrating.

Even after all the talk about distracted drivers and products developed to make less distractions, Intel and Google are hoping to bring your desktop to the dashboard. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, they displayed 10 inch screens above the gearshift displaying high definition videos, 3-D maps and web pages. These “infotainment systems” will hit the market this year and are likely to become standard equipment in a wide range of auto’s before long. They prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving, but they can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger.

Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says “This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst. Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.” The technology and car companies say that safety remains a priority.