Being in this line of work does mean hopping from car to car more often than most people, but since I can recall, the first thing I tend to do is install is a mount for my smartphone.
The reason is simple: it’s the best infotainment system there is, and it works with every vehicle out there (mostly). All I need from the car is a way to output the audio to the interior speakers, be it via Bluetooth or even an 3.5mm analogue audio cable. I’ve found that, the less I fussed over how the car’s own infotainment system worked, the better my experience is, so I end up avoiding it altogether.
Of course, I cannot ignore it entirely. When I have an extended period of time with the car, delving deep into the workings of its digital interface is always a must, but I consistently find myself disappointed at just how unintuitive and poorly designed they are.
Things have gotten better over the years, thankfully, and there are a few automakers that have exceptionally well-crafted infotainment experiences. Volvo, BMW, Mazda, and Mercedes-Benz come to mind, but they’re still far from ideal.
Most car companies seem to be spinning their wheels on the matter as, on the whole, the car infotainment (or telematics) experience is a dumpster fire. Even worse, we have safety regulators and law enforcement who are doubly confused about what is and isn’t allowed when driving. However, when it comes to things displayed on these clunky, laggy, unintuitive, confusing infotainment systems…that gets a pass.
On the flip side, they are very quick to punish those who use their smartphones while driving, dispensing hefty fines to those caught using one while behind the wheel, yet each year we have new cars launched with even larger, more distracting screens, new functionality (often gimmicks), and snazzy interface elements with even fancier animations.
Somehow, these are allowed to distract you.
Step out of the car, though, and it’s always a little jarring to notice how fluid, intuitive, and incomprehensibly more useful my smartphone is. Maybe that’s just me. After all, it has the best versions of every app, has wickedly slick interface, stores all my photos and music and contacts and appointments and notes and allows me access to every last bit of information I am curious about. Normal life would literally grind to a halt without it.
So, for even basic functions, why do we routinely put up with a vastly inferior on-screen experience in our cars?
Since the iPhone was shown to the world in 2007, automakers have been trying desperately to turn their cars into a smartphone on wheels. It was partly our fault too, as we are easily impressed by a colourful display with capacitive touch that looked ‘modern’ and ‘high tech’ in cars, instantly making every new model without a big ‘look-at-me’ screen seem antiquated.
Over the years, automakers have collectively spent billions of dollars to equip their newest offerings with the computational hardware found in present-day infotainment suites, not to mention the expense in founding new internal departments to develop the complex software that runs it all.
Each of these automakers also closely guard their proprietary interface as an integral link in the overall brand experience, so none of them work or look similarly - on purpose. That sounds fair enough until you realise you’ll have to un-learn what you were used to doing in one car just to master basic functions in another. Sounds fun.
Making things even more difficult is the pesky issue of safety. A driver’s attention is (and should be) always on the road, making any spare glance away so much more precious (and perilous) compared to the attention of the average smartphone user.
We only have two eyes and usually need both to drive. In-car interfaces, therefore, need to be even more easily/ quickly understood and instantly intuitive to maximise the limited focus a driver can divert to the infotainment system. So, good luck with that.
The trouble is automakers are also pretty lousy at making digital user interfaces, as it turns out. Apple and Google - with iOS and Android - have needed to refine the collective smartphone experience we take for granted over the past 13+ years, so expecting Ford or Volkswagen or General Motors to produce something similar while being car-centric and intuitive enough to use while driving is pretty absurd.
I suspect that every automaker is acutely aware of how lacklustre their own in-car systems are and how much focus they demand just to be comprehended. But instead of dialling back on features and additional software bloat, we are treated each year to a new feature or interfacing method, confusing car owners even more.
Touchscreens in cars were already a bad idea due to how hard it is to stab a specific part of an off-centre screen 2 feet away while trying not to crash, but we’re now subject to hit-or-miss voice commands and temperamental gesture controls.
BMW and Mazda seem to have the right idea with their rotary control knobs which, to be sure, has its own host of idiosyncrasies. But unlike the other forms of human-machine interfaces, the rotary knob is the least annoying most of the time. Still, in a world of imperfect solutions, it’s the best of the worst.
These days, even the word ‘infotainment’ doesn’t fully describe how tightly these interfaces have been woven into the in-car experience. It used to be well understood that ‘infotainment’ encompassed media playback, vehicle telematics, and perhaps some form of navigation, but these days, in a bid to minimise interior button clutter (while saving money), automakers have also started including a host of vehicle controls into the same interface.
Depending on who you ask, everything from climate control to electric seat adjustment to ambient interior lighting to suspension/ drive modes are accessible only through this cluttered interface, usually buried under layers of menus.
On the one hand it’s all neatly unified, but on the other you’ll probably be spending a good few hours parked up to just explore the nooks and crevices of this software system in order to access features older cars could perform with just a touch of a button.
Let’s not forget that many of these on-board operating systems now have integrated cellular modems that allow them to access the internet, so probably half of these features won’t be available without a good cell signal. There’s also WiFi support, thankfully, which allows for over-the-air software updates. Great! But let’s hope automakers use it to fix bugs as well as improve stability and speed instead of wirelessly installing even more half-baked features.
Smartphone makers (or operating system vendor in Android’s case) have also noticed how jumbled the infotainment landscape is and are even very probably aware how many of us revert to using our own devices over having to use the in-car system.
Their solution, initially announced within months of each other by the way, is Apple CarPlay for iOS and Android Auto for….Android. Both work quite similarly in that they do as much as possible to replicate the smartphone interface in the car with modified versions of the same (limited) apps and features. It does work for the most part and does indeed bridge the gulf between the two interfaces, but here is where we fall into its many limitations.
First of all, the app selection is much more sparse and requires app developers to add specific car-friendly interface modes before they can be accessible. Therefore, apart from the smartphone OS’ default apps, the third party selection revolves around Spotify, Waze, and WhatsApp since music, navigation, and communication account for the majority of uses we expect from conventional infotainment systems.
However, with regard to what is displayed in WhatsApp or iMessage, for example, Apple does not allow any text to actually be shown on-screen within CarPlay. The official reasoning here is that it would be overly distracting to the driver, so instead it’s left to Siri’s voice dictation to read the message aloud. Privacy much?
This is stupid beyond belief as it would make everyone I am in the car with privy to my private messages. Even worse, Siri is expecting to read texts with perfect spelling and grammar and punctuation, not casual text exchanges between friends and loved ones, which for me are often 80 percent slang and a mix between English and Bahasa Malaysia. The other 20 percent leftover is just nonsensical jabber.
Since that’s useless, I don’t even bother with checking messages on CarPlay. “It’s not safe”, or so goes the excuse. But then, CarPlay is very happy to show me a navigation screen (Waze, let’s say) with dozens of street names around me, or a Spotify screen with thousands of song titles. Apparently, all that text information (which is way more than any message I’d send) is perfectly safe to bombard my eyes and attention with.
I haven’t had a chance to live with Android Auto yet but I’m told the situation isn’t much different. And even if the Google version is a good deal less idiotic than Apple CarPlay, I’d be willing to wager that it doesn’t beat just mounting up your smartphone. Despite my bias toward smaller smartphones and screens, here’s one use case where a large display sure would come in real handy.
The problem seems to be that the bar is set so low and that we, as consumers, tend to only see the infotainment package as icing on the cake when shopping for a new car. We’re also easily caught up in surface-level attributes such as infotainment screen size when that has almost no bearing to how frustrating (or not) it could be to use.
As long as we don’t set higher expectations, progress here will be slow and the disparity between the on-screen experience in your hand versus the one in your car will grow deeper and deeper. Though, at some point, automakers will just have to admit that their infotainment systems are more a nuisance than they are helpful.
Like I said, barring a few exceptions, I am always secretly disappointed at how terrible even 2020-era systems are to use, always aware that, even if I see a million Ringgit luxury car driving along, the Grab driver in the Perodua Bezza behind him is probably having a better, more feature-rich on-screen experience with his or her phone mounted on the dashboard.
There's just something about cars. It's a conveyance, it's a liability, it's a tool; but it can also be a source of joy, pride, inspiration and passion. It's much like clothes versus fashion. And like the latter, the pursuit of perfection never ends.