It's time for a revolution in car audio and electronics
Why are so many car interfaces so bad?
I don’t mean the gas pedal, brake, steering wheel, turn signals, and so on—these things are universal, and they haven’t changed much in the last half century. No, I’m talking about all those extra bells and whistles that car manufacturers insist on shoehorning into every available inch: navigation systems, multi CD-changer/satellite radio/media interface/DVD-watching entertainment centers—you know what I mean.
You sit down in a rental, ZipCar, or friend’s vehicle, and are more often than not confronted by an obtuse set of dials, knobs, sliders, and—increasingly popular and the worst of them all—a touchscreen.
Simply put, the interfaces most cars provide lack elegance or any indication that the people building them have actually spent time using them in a running vehicle. I say this as someone who was recently in the market to buy a car, and ended up purchasing a 2012 Volkswagen GTI.
The poor usability of the electronics and media system in the GTI stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the car, which is otherwise very well-designed. There’s a clear focus on usability that is reminiscent of Apple’s work, and something that you don’t find on a lot of other automobiles. Climate controls are easy to use and even, dare I say, attractive, and there are plenty of little niceties like a glove compartment that has an air conditioner vent in it, a trunk organizer for storing tools and other accessories, and a sunroof with variable levels of control. Even Volkswagen’s key fob is cleverly designed, as it includes the key as a spring-loaded part of the fob itself.
But the audio system—as I understand it, it is mostly shoved in whole cloth by its OEM, Panasonic—doesn’t really meet the same level of quality. And that’s what has me questioning the whole “attention to detail” aspect of car interfaces.
Fair warning: This is based on my own personal experiences, largely with my GTI. There are probably some car interfaces that aren’t terrible. Frankly, I’d love to hear more about them, so sound off in the comments.
I firmly believe that whoever first thought it was a good idea to put a touchscreen in a car should be dragged behind a truck, Indiana Jones-style. Sure, we’re all used to touchscreens these days: our phones and tablets have them, as do the ticket kiosks at the airport, ATMs, and even directories at some malls.
While touchscreens are handy for letting you create a variety of different user interfaces without having to invest in costly physical controls, and are easy enough to use when the task at hand has the user’s full attention (as at an ATM or ticket kiosk) the last thing that you—and in all likelihood, your passengers—want is an interface that requires you, the driver, to take your eyes off the road.
It’s bad enough when the touchscreen only controls the audio system, but far worse if—as in my parents’ Toyota Prius—it’s also how you adjust the climate controls. Fortunately, many cars also provide actual physical controls mounted on the steering wheel, which mitigates this to a certain extent, but even just having a giant screen in the middle of your dashboard is, for many, already an enormous distraction.
I appreciate the physical buttons on my GTI’s steering wheel, which let me control volume and skip back and forth between tracks, but the lack of any tactile control for playing or pausing music (short of turning the stereo off), is irritating. Turning the volume all the way down is sometimes an acceptable alternative, but it’s frustrating in cases where I don’t want to miss the audio that’s playing.
Touchscreens are only part of the problem, though. Most audio interfaces these days share the same heritage, following the lineage of the tape deck to the CD player to the MP3 player. Given that the iPod has been around for more than a decade, you’d think that the companies making this equipment would have at least a basic blueprint of how not to screw things up. Yet they seem almost gleefully oblivious to convention.
For example, we’ve all used shuffle mode since what seems like time immemorial. The idea is consistent: Your library is shuffled into a randomized playlist. If you hit next track, you hear a random song—but you can go in reverse to hear the previous songs. So, if you flip past a song, and then change your mind and decide you really did want to listen to it, you can hit the previous track button and go back to it.
Only, the audio unit in my Volkswagen doesn’t do that. When I hit previous song to go back to the one I just skipped over, it takes me back to a different random song. Essentially, each song is an island in a sea of randomness. Which is like walking through a city you’ve never been through before, then turning around and realizing that the way you came has changed entirely. To me that sounds less like using an audio interface and more like Inception.
The interface isn’t much better when it comes to actually picking the songs I want to listen to. It's gracious enough to provide options for browsing playlists, albums, artists, songs, and so on, but you have to navigate each of these lists with a touchscreen scrollbar reminiscent of a classic DOS application interface. For those keeping score at home, this is possibly the single worst way to force a driver to pick a song, short of having them write the name of a song on a piece of paper, feed it into a scanner, then correct the inevitable typos produced by OCR software. All while driving.
Worse, there’s no way to accomplish this music selection task with the non-touchscreen controls. At one point, my eyes alit upon the stereo’s Tune knob, which defaults to acting like previous and next track buttons. (Why? Why not!?) Maybe the designers were more clever than I’d given them credit for and I could use that knob to quickly scrub through a list of songs and select one, à la a scroll wheel... but the stereo doesn’t do that, because that would make sense.
Add to that a few other random glitches: In Bluetooth mode, the song’s progress bar doesn’t correctly reflect where you are in a song, so when the next song comes on, it looks like you’re already halfway through it. When you select a song from the interface, the system leaves you sitting at the selection menu, instead of taking you back to the song that’s currently playing. Sometimes the time elapsed/time remaining counters jump multiple seconds at a time, which makes you feel like you’re edging towards 88 miles per hour in a DeLorean.
There’s also, somewhat perplexingly, a Scan mode for the media player. Much as on some old CD players or your car’s AM/FM radio, Scan plays a few seconds of a song, then skips to the next one. Presumably, the point is to let it get to a song you want to hear, and then to turn Scan mode off. Honestly, this seems like a solution in search of a problem. Isn’t it just easier to keep pressing the next track button until you hear a song you want to listen to? Scan mode can only be activated or deactivated via the touchscreen, whereas I can skip tracks from my steering wheel buttons. Why, in the name of all that is good in the world, would I ever use this feature?
The most egregious problem with the car stereo, however, can be laid at the feet of the garden-variety software bug. As with many of Volkswagen’s models, the GTI sports a physical media connector (by default, it uses an adapter for Apple’s dock-connector port) and Bluetooth streaming. Sounds nice, right? It did to me, until—on day one of driving the car—The Who’s classic “Baba O’Riley” came on and I realized, in puzzlement, that I wasn’t hearing the whole song.
Pulling over, I played around with my iPhone for a few minutes, and determined that the stereo was only playing the right channel of the audio. Investigation concluded that the Bluetooth streaming of the car stereo was at fault, since neither the cable connection nor any of the other media options (CD player, radio, satellite, and so on) suffered from the issue, and my iPhone played stereo audio perfectly fine to a set of Bluetooth speakers.
After some Google investigation, I determined I was not alone: Plenty of other owners of the 2012 GTI and Passat, which both have trim options with this particular stereo unit, suffered from this dreaded condition. I had to go back to the dealer for another matter anyway, so I demoed the issue to the salesperson, using a test audio file that isolated the left and right channels. He agreed there was a problem, but said that he hadn’t heard of it before. Then he checked with the service department about a software update.
Here we come to the crux of the problem. Most of us are used to applying software updates these days, whether it be our computers’ OS or our smartphone apps, but when it comes to car software it often seems like we’re back in a pre-digital age. I’d installed a third-party stereo in my previous car, and that unit at least let me download a firmware update from the website to a thumb drive, which I could then plug into the head unit’s USB port. There remained the problem of notifying users—without an Internet connection, there’s no way for a stereo unit itself to know that it needs a software update or that one has been released, and most consumers probably aren’t savvy enough to go looking for an update, or even realize that their stereo can be updated.
So, I was left with two options: Use Bluetooth streaming in mono mode, which provided the full audio experience, albeit at crappier quality (and forced me to switch back and forth between mono and stereo when I wanted to listen via headphones), or just stick with the wired connection. For now, I’ve chosen the latter, but I’m hopeful that a forthcoming software update—which Internet message boards suggest is due in September, because heaven forbid car manufacturers be transparent about such things—will fix the Bluetooth problem. That should just leave me with 724 other issues to gripe about.
The lesson here is a pretty simple one: If your software is going to be difficult to upgrade, then get it right the first time. There’s no reason that the media player software and hardware in an automobile—a multithousand dollar purchase, mind you—shouldn’t be bulletproof.
Many of the interface problems I’ve run into could potentially be bypassed by using an alternative method of user interaction. For example, the iPhone 4S’s voice-controlled virtual assistant, Siri, can not only play back music of my choice without having to dig through endless menus, but it can also make phone calls, read text messages, give me directions, and more. Perfect for when you’re driving, right?
Only, there’s no easy way to trigger Siri while driving without pressing and holding the iPhone’s home button. And, thanks to the aforementioned Bluetooth bug, I have to connect my phone via the car’s media cable, which is about six inches long and expects the phone to be placed in a slot in the armrest compartment. Which is inaccessible while I’m driving. (I ended up purchasing a cheap iPhone dock-connector extension cable in the meantime, but at three feet long, it ends up with an ungainly amount of slack.)
Help may be on the way, though perhaps not for me. At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote in June, senior vice president of iOS software Scott Forstall said the company was working with car makers to add a button for triggering Siri to the steering wheel of many models.
Part of me wonders why this couldn’t be backported to current vehicles: My GTI has Bluetooth integration, letting me answer or make phone calls from a button the steering wheel. My Bluetooth headset has a button that triggers Siri (or Voice Control, on previous iPhone models). But there’s no way to trigger Siri from my steering wheel—holding down the phone button causes my iPhone to redial the most recent number instead.
Of course, I could always just use Volkswagen’s own built-in voice recognition system. If I wanted to constantly stab my eyes out. It’s slow, limited in its functionality, and incredibly inaccurate—pretty much all things you might expect if you spent any time with the rest of the electronics in this car. Heck, it makes me miss the voice dialing capabilities on my old Motorola v60. It saddens me that there’s a dedicated button on my steering wheel that I’ll only ever hit by accident. What I’d really like is an option to have that button pass through the request directly to Siri, but I somehow don’t see that happening.
The whole widget
“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware,” programmer Alan Kay once said. I’m starting to think that the inverse of this is true, too. All the great hardware in the world isn’t worth much unless it’s got great software to go with it.
It still seems like most car manufacturers think the best way to build in their electronics is by working with partners, and most of those partners know as much about how their software and services work in an automobile environment as the car manufacturers know about how to build good electronics.
Recently, I sat in on about 30 minutes of a press briefing for a major car company, about its new initiatives for their automotive electronics, which mostly focused on a deal the company had made with one particular partner, a tech company that I’d never heard of. It was a presentation so dull it nearly put me to sleep—to be fair, I’d been recovering from a stomach bug—thanks to its complete lack of passion.
Partnerships like these can be irksome for consumers—as nice as it is to get those three free months of satellite radio in my car, I’m probably not going to subscribe once my trial period is up. Now I’m stuck forever with a useless Satellite button on my dashboard. It’s bloatware in my car. But the car remains a captive market for partners, and they’re going to dish out all the movie theater popcorn they can.
Look, car electronics are no longer something to be shoved in at the last minute. We’re all carrying smartphones, tablets, laptops, GPS devices, and countless other gimzos and gadgets with us. Think about all the exciting possibilities and capabilities we could have if we started treating technology as part of the car, rather than as an add-on to be filled later. Honestly, there’s little in my new car’s audio system that’s more than a marginal improvement over ten years ago when I was connecting a classic iPod via a tape deck adapter.
Much as I’d like to see Apple enter this market, I doubt they’ll ever get much farther than the aforementioned deal for Siri functionality. That might be good enough for many, but there are plenty of folks who are still going to be struggling with subpar equipment. In order to improve this situation, it’s going to take a kick in the pants from a company who is truly serious about building a great automobile media experience.