Horsepower? Who cares? Fuel economy? A trifling. Crash test scores? So ho-hum. Resale value? Yesterday's news. Reliability, durability? A sideshow. But connectivity?
"The introduction of the Model T by Henry Ford in 1908 was a moment that transformed transportation. Today, we are at the beginning of the next big automotive revolution – the connected car," says Peggy Smedley, editorial director, Connected World magazine.
Smedley, in fact, says the chassis of the future is not all about suspension tuning and ride quality. Nope. The "chassis on which the [auto] industry as a whole drives into the future" is the ability of car companies to harness data using "the power of connectivity."
Oh, my. And here I'd thought for all these years that cars were about driving first, text messages, satellite radio, voice-activated navigation system and the like, second. I am apparently wrong. The experts say so. Experts who specialize in Facebook, Twitter and so on have set their sights on the 21st century automobile. Connected World is among them.
Thus, a magazine for the 24/7 wired one has released its 2013 Connected Car of the Year awards. Sad but true, I'm afraid, Connected World is right to say that car companies need to cater to aware drivers who "want to stay connected while in their vehicle." The trick with the connected car is to balance driver safety with functionality with user-friendliness – a three-legged stool. Ugh. Not easy.
But if it were easy, everyone would do it, and do it successfully. For now, the contenders include Audi connect, General Motors Cue for Cadillacs and MyLink for Chevrolets, Chrysler's Uconnect Access, Ford's SYNC/MyFord Touch/MyLincoln Touch, mbrace2 from Mercedes-Benz and more.
This year, Connected World singled out these cars as best in their class: Small: Chevy Cruze; Mid-size: Cadillac ATS; Luxury: Audi S7, Ultra-luxury: Mercedes-Benz SL550, Truck: Ram 1500, Green: Ford Fusion Energi Plug-In Hybrid.
I'd be tempted to dismiss this whole connected cars thing if the evidence for its importance weren't so overwhelming. That is, the modern consumer expects the car to be an extension of the smartphone and the tablet. The smart car will rule in the future, says a new study sponsored by online business technology provider Covisint, a unit of Compuware Corp.
As Automotive News reports, 21st-century car buyers see themselves as "users at the centre of a network of integrated personal devices and services." David Miller, Covisint's chief security officer, told the publication that the typical buyer is now or soon will be part of an "ecosystem" at the centre of which is a smartphone that enables social connections through Twitter and other applications such as Four Square. The car fits into that ecosystem, but is not at the centre of it. They are weeping in Detroit, Tokyo, Munich and Stuttgart.
Drivers want connected vehicles to complement their ecosystems, Miller told Automotive News. The Connected Vehicle study by just-auto.com says this trend is setting up a battle in the car business itself and various suppliers. On one side are those who believe in "embedded" or "built-in connectivity." Here, car companies and their particular suppliers develop their own proprietary technology. On the other side are companies willing to bring in mobile systems and integrate them into their vehicles.
"The advent of the smartphone has moved the goal posts again," the study says. And like so many other studies, reports and experts looking at these developments, the smartphone is seen as the central player. "The smartphone is rapidly displacing the traditional mobile telephone as a connectivity device as users demand access to the Internet, social media and other applications available through brought-in devices, but displayed and operated with in-car controls."
In the near future if not already, consumers will want to connect with any and all servers on the Internet. It's a brave new app world.
If it were only that simple. Consumer Reports has noted that while in-car electronics is a field of automotive technology moving at blinding speed, not all is paradise in the world of connected cars. Complicated and distracting systems, those that don't live up to the hype and promise, are a real problem.
"Cars now offer incredible levels of technology and connectivity," says Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports director of automotive testing. "But capability and convenience varies from system to system," he says, adding, "You want technology to make things simple rather than adding extra hassle."
Unlike Connected World, Consumer Reports found Cadillac's Cue frustrating to use – along with MyFord/MyLincoln Touch. I don't agree. While C.R. griped about complicated menus, touch screens that are slow to respond and small display fonts and buttons that are hard to quickly read and access, I found no such thing when recently testing a Cue-Equipped Caddy XTS and an MKZ loaded with MyLincoln Touch.
Cue, which stands for Cadillac User Experience, is simple to operate, once you take a few minutes to dial in the "customizable user interfaces." That is, once you learn to use properly the standard eight-inch (203-mm) screen in the centre stack, the beauty of this comes into focus.
At the same time, some of us also need to become comfortable with the fact that a wave of your hand – called gesture recognition – wakes up the touch screen. And some are still working at settling into a car that you can talk to. At least with Cue, MyLincoln Touch and others, voice recognition is straightforward. Truth is, if you can use an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy or the latest Blackberry, there is nothing tricky about Cue and many of its ilk.
Still, C.R. is a huge fan of Chrysler's Uconnect Touch. The magazine's testers applaud the system's "simple, clear menus" and "easy-to-use push buttons and knobs for frequent tasks." Another winner: the 17-inch touch screen in the Tesla Model S. Its big on-screen buttons are clear and user-friendly and the system responds quickly. "One redeeming feature of the Cue and MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems is their class-leading comprehensive voice commands," added CR in its latest connected car study.
For car companies, the most important consideration for the future may be how to create an "open" system that can link or can be integrated with a wide range of smart phones from all sorts of smart phone companies. Here's the issue: how easy will it be for you and me to link our particular handheld device or tablet to our car? How easy will it be to save and transfer profile settings, home pages and favourites to other devices? asks the study reported in Automotive News.
"Think about this idea of you (creating) all this connectivity with your vehicle," Miller told Automotive News. "And if you're a GM person, for example, maybe you'll buy another GM car. In the same way that if you're an iPhone person today, you really don't want to move to Android because of the difficulty it is to move all your stuff over."
This notion creates new issues for car companies. How do they build a connected car system that allows iPhone users or Galaxy lovers to move seamlessly from an Audi to a Cadillac to a Lincoln, Mercedes or Chevy? And somewhere in all this, the car needs to look good, go well, use little fuel, ride comfortably, ace crash tests and never break while retaining as much of its sticker price as possible after four or five years.
Henry Ford once famously said about the Model T, you can have it in any colour as long as it's black. Well, to update that, you can have the 21st century car with seamless connectivity no matter the smart phone or tablet – and it will be almost perfect in every other way, too. The Henry Fords of 2013 don't have it easy.
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