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Some vehicle technology doesn't sync with drivers' smartphones

July 19, 2013
Some of the latest in-dash “infortainment” systems are turning into a giant headache for drivers, as problems with phone, entertainment and navigation functions were the biggest source of complaints in the latest J.D. Power & Associates survey of new-car quality.
The glitches easily outstripped traditional issues in the survey such as fit and finish and wind noise.
Much of the problem lies in the disconnect between product cycles for cars and smartphones. The technology in cars, which take years to come to market, can’t keep pace with relentless smartphone updates.
The compatibility issues highlight an industry debate: Should cars come with their own communication and navigation systems? Or should they simply mirror smartphones on their dashboard screens, tapping into the constantly updated mobile-application environment?
Meanwhile, car companies are spending millions of dollars developing interfaces, voice recognition software and navigation systems, many of which either already come loaded on phones or can be downloaded at the swipe of a finger. For instance, an automaker’s optional satellite-linked navigation and traffic system can cost $2,000. But Waze, a division of Google Inc., provides the same functionality in a free app.
Automakers are attacking in-dash technology in a piecemeal way that could take years to sort out. Think of it as a modern version of the old Betamax-versus-VHS battle over videocassette recorder formats.
Ford Motor Co. has its own system. Apple Inc. is working with one set of automakers to design an interface that works better with its iPhone line. Some of the same car companies and others have joined the Car Connectivity Consortium, which is working with the major Android phone brands to develop a different interface.
All of this is complicated by the growing role of smartphones in daily life. “People today bond more with their smartphones than their car,” said Tom Mutchler, the senior engineer at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. “Car companies are going to have to live up to the expectations that come with that.”
Some car brands, including Ford and Lincoln, are sticking to building their own systems into cars.
“For the safety and overall experience for our customers, we think allowing developers to create apps that will work with our system, using our specifications, is the best way to go,” said Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronics systems at Ford Research and Innovation.
He’s not a fan of handing control of these functions to a smartphone, because many of the features in the vehicle’s infotainment system “are very deeply integrated into the overall vehicle.”
“It’s arguable that a phone does all just as well or better,” Buczkowski said. “And if you forget your phone, you’re out of luck.”