Work + Travel

An Open Letter to Car Companies

Volvo Car Technology

Dear Car Companies—

Would you mind terribly if I was frank for a moment about something? Because I’ve got beef with you, and it’s time I got it off my chest.

My world is getting smarter— ridiculously so, in fact. I’ve got lights that turn themselves on when I enter a room, a virtual assistant who can read me the news headlines, a television that can find me something to watch from an infinite amount of channels, and a cellphone who can find the nearest pharmacy if I have a headache. I have sensors and computers around me all day, measuring data, giving me helpful tips on how to live life better.

And then I get in my car, and things are just… dumb.

Listen, I’m grateful with the leaps of innovation when it comes to safety in car technology. That’s important stuff. My blind spot monitors, backup cameras, and semi-autonomous driving capabilities— it all makes me feel like it might be okay for me to let my son loose on the road this summer when he turns 16. (And whoo boy that’s a scary thought.)

But have you guys not noticed that we’re in a personal tech revolution? Don’t you think that the vehicles we transport ourselves in, all day, every day should house at least the kind of basic technology that our phones do? All you designers and technologists: you all have smartphones in your pockets— are you, too, not frustrated with how limited, how inefficient, how bumbling your car technology is? Sometimes I think my old Motorola flip phone is smarter than my current-model SUV.

Listen, I can see you’re making an effort to smarten things up: Some new cars now have Facebook or Yelp apps. Really? Guys, have you used those apps? They are painfully slow, and inputting search terms makes you want to bang your head against the dashboard. Why wouldn’t I just pick up my phone? If you’re going to put capabilities in my car, they need to surpass the experience my phone can offer— in speed, in safety— otherwise why bother. Plus, why on earth would I want to access Facebook through my car at all? Why not do some research into what might actually be useful to a driver? Or actually improve the driving experience?

And then there’s inputting information, like addresses or names. At CES, every car I sat in had some new system for inputting information. Wheels, dials, tablets I’m supposed to trace letters on with my finger. Guys, none of this makes quick work of inputting addresses, and it certainly doesn’t make it easy to do while driving. Why not just invest in making voice recognition better, so the car can actually understand what I’m saying. You know, like my phone does?  Yes, Siri, OK Google and Cortana aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty good listeners most of the time. The bar is high, but you could license that technology instead of building sub-par systems that frustrate your consumers.

And then the kicker is we pay extra for this stuff. The “Navigation System”— with the map that isn’t as smart as Google Maps (or even Apple Maps…), that can’t read my calendar, that makes entering a destination so complicated, that can barely understand me, and that sports graphics that look like they’re a decade behind the times. Yeah, I pay more for that. I pay about 5X or 10X more for that than I do for the average smartphone or tablet, which runs circles around it. Plus, the car can’t update itself, so the minute you drive that pricey navigation system off the lot, it’s outdated. You used to see that as a profit center— get people back in year after year to pay for a new map. Now, we all have phones that do that for free— so no sale on your map DVDs.

At CES, all the talk was about driverless cars. That technology is exciting (or at least thought-provoking) but it won’t be here for a while. Maybe it’s me, but all the focus on driverless cars just makes me feel like you’re giving a big middle finger to THE DRIVER. It’s like, instead of making your experience better now, with available technology, we’re just skipping right over you and looking into the future. Who cares if the technology in your car is sub-standard? We’re on to bigger, better things.

Thank goodness, I guess, that the Silicon Valley giants took notice. Your misstep became an opportunity for them to create Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and essentially hijack the car’s system by supplanting their technology for yours.

Volvo XC90 Apple CarPlay: Car Technology

I drove a Volvo XC90 for a few weeks this fall and was impressed with how the built-in CarPlay made life easier. It automatically read me texts and I could send responses, all while never looking at my phone (not to mention get turn by turn directions, listen to music, and even use other apps like NPR One or Audible).

Additional tech touches in the Volvo gave me hope too— the display was large and portrait-oriented, which was helpful for looking at maps or long lists of options. Loved that. Plus a head-up display put lots of information in my line of sight without distracting me. I know Volvo isn’t the only company trying to make strides in this area, but on the whole it just feels like too little too late.

Navdy : Car Technology

For older cars that don’t have the latest best-effort technology, there are ways to upgrade. Verizon’s Hum offers app-enabled roadside assistance, speed and boundary alerts (love this for teens), and easier-to-understand vehicle diagnostics. Or there’s Navdy, which pulls important information from your phone and, with gestures, voice control and a head-up display, puts it all front and center without distracting you from the road.

I should give an honorable mention to Tesla, who seems to be in a class of their own when it comes to car technology. The very large portrait display sports a Google Maps integration, so you always know you’ve got the most up-to-date map and traffic information. Your calendar is automatically imported from your phone, so you can easily tap an appointment location and get directions. Plus, the voice recognition is stellar and understands casual commands like, “Navigate to Joe’s Coffee Shop” or “Play Allison by Elvis Costello” and consistently gets it right. Tesla seems to be doing a lot of things right— electric charging and rocket-fast engine aside, when I drive in a Tesla I can’t help but feel, This is how cars should be in 2017. Other car companies have a lot of catching up to do.

Final thought: I’m a car girl. And I live in Los Angeles, so my car is a second home. My plea comes from a passion and appreciation for what you do. But when the ball is dropped I need to call it like I see it. 

I’m glad we talked.

How do you feel about the current state of car technology? What do you wish your car could do? Let me know in the comments. 

4 comments on “An Open Letter to Car Companies”

  1. THANK YOU!!! You are 100% correct and maybe this explains why I’m not a car person. I’m just annoyed by their inferior attempts at new technology. My phone is 100x better. And seriously… WHY would I want to access Facebook from my car???

  2. Thanks Carley – you have nailed it! Also, it would really be nice if car manufacturers figured out that women carry purses & designed a useful spot to stow them while driving.

  3. Thank you Carly! I have CarPlay in my 2016 Yukon XL but it glitches. I can’t seem to get any feedback from GM or Apple in regards to this issue. Well the feedback from GM would be, have you updated your phone to iOS 9? My question is how does CarPlay stay up to date? How do you know what version of CarPlay that your car is running? It is pretty good when it is working but a nightmare when the dash screen goes black and the whole thing reboots when you are driving down the road.

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