Why My Next Car Needs to be LESS Digital

by Andrew McAfee on November 26, 2012

Am I right that carmakers today have a serious technology problem with their customer-facing digital technologies?

I took my car in to the dealer today. While it was being worked on I wandered around the showroom looking at all the latest models. I stopped in front of a Lexus LS460L because of the sticker price, which was $87,850. It looked like a nice enough car, but Holy Cow…

I looked closely at the sticker to see if I could figure why it cost that much. The first thing listed under “Luxury and Convenience Features” was a “Navigation [system] with High Resolution 12.3 inch screen, Remote Touch Interface.” Here’s a picture of the screen:

The White Elephant in the Dashboard

The problem for Lexus is that this system makes me less likely to buy the car.

The digital in-car systems I’ve seen for navigation, climate control, music, and so on range from mildy lousy to actively terrible. The user interfaces are cryptic, slow, and non-intuitive; the data they rely on for navigation are archaic; and they generally feel like things I have to wrestle with as I drive from point A to point B.

I used to think that this was my fault – that I hadn’t yet spent enough time in the driveway practicing with the with the owner’s manual open on my lap — but I don’t any more. My smartphone and tablet have shown me an alternative. They’ve shown me that a digital screen can be intuitive and easy to use while simultaneously delivering a ridiculously large amount of functionality.

My iPhone contains a music library, a music streaming device, and a constantly updated, crowdsourced GPS system that’s the best I’ve ever used (thanks, Waze!). These latter two capabilities are completely free to me, yet are better than anything I’ve ever found in a car. So why do I want the screen that comes with the car? I just want a power source and decent holder for my phone and/or tablet, not an inferior, hardwired substitute for them.

The situation only gets worse when I consider that I’ll likely own my next car for at least six years. This is four ticks of Moore’s Law — four doublings of computer power per $. Which means that the device I can buy six years from now will be sixteen (2^4) times more powerful than the one I can buy now. Phones, tablets, and other digital devices will be unimaginably cool in six years, just like the ones we have today were unimaginable six years ago. So even if the screen in the Lexus I saw today is absolutely cutting edge (which it’s not; it started to get obsolete the day its design was finalized, which was a long time before the car was built and delivered to the showroom) it will be an annoying joke in six years — a constant reminder of how much I overpaid, and how locked in I am to a (by then) obsolete technology.

What can carmakers do about this situation? They could follow the lead of phone and tablet makers and open up their digital platforms to open innovation – publish their specs; let outsiders develop systems for navigation, music, climate control, and so on; and provide a convenient way for users to download these systems to their cars. Ford has taken some encouraging steps in this direction with its OpenXC platform, but I haven’t seen much other evidence of truly open digital innovation sanctioned by the manufacturers.  And even if it there were more of it, it wouldn’t deal with the issue of hardware obsolescence.

I mean this seriously: I’d be thrilled to find good car that didn’t even try to provide a digital user interface. Give me a few knobs and dials for the basics, and a reconfigurable power source, mounting bracket, and input/output cable for whatever device I wanted to use. I’d actually pay more for that car than I would for one with a big hardwired screen. Wouldn’t you?


Lewis Shepherd November 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I agree. Also, I note that the screen is mounted directly above an analog clockface. The Lexus designers determined that the humans aboard (driver, passenger) would prefer an “retro, old-fashioned” but more intuitive and therefore more informative “time interface,” rather than jam in another digital readout. Perhaps they’ll similarly learn on the other gizmo gunk….

melinda November 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I couldn’t agree more. And, try taking your dad to a dealership and watch him say just what you did…keep it simple. Or, we are getting old and intolerant of annoying things 😉

Shaun November 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm

i’ve got a 3yr old Fusion Hybrid with nav/music/dvd package. It still impresses folks right now, but i plan on keeping this car for quite some time. It’s great right now, but nowhere near the UX of my tablet or smartphones. Much of my cars controls are in that touchscreen. Once that goes it’ll be pricey to replace with what would likely be an antiquated interface. I think for reasons you mention newer cars will never keep pace with technology. A more modular approach is definitely needed.

Nick Grossman November 27, 2012 at 11:41 am

This is a great point. I wonder if it would make sense for a coalition of lower end automakers to participate in some sort of “open auto alliance” akin to the open handset alliance. I have a hard time imagining that lexus, bmw, etc (or even their lower tier wanna be’s) will abandon the proprietary route anytime soon. But I completely agree with your position here.

jamyn November 27, 2012 at 11:52 am

Given the OEM four year tech lead time vs. the pace of change in consumer tech, web and social, I couldn’t agree more. Which is why we created Dash Labs – we’ve built a mobile app, which pairs to the open OBD port under your steering wheel, to create a real-time dashboard of car performance, driving habits, diagnostics and alerts, to help the road experience be smarter, safer and more affordable. It’s kind of like a Nest or FitBit for cars. Check it out at http://www.dash.by and sign up for our beta if you are interested in learning more! We’re based in NYC and I’m HBS class of 2005, so we know a bunch of people in common.

me December 13, 2012 at 4:18 am

Well.. they are going to do that to impress the older crowd who is less tech saavy. To them the technology is awesome. …To the others all that’s needed is a large high res screen, with an HDMI input to play your cell onto the screen. Then maybe just use talk navigation to text and what not. I mean if you talk to text on your cell you still have to look down and read it. Why not read it on a large screen on your dashboard instead. Or at least have it audibly read to you through your loud speaker phones. It’s kinda funny how we text instead of talk, then we end up talking to each other, but through text! Maybe they should just make a deal with Apple and sell phone packages that couple with in car screens or some other idea within that context.

Pham Trung Kien January 20, 2013 at 4:30 am


Pham Trung Kien January 20, 2013 at 4:37 am


Anonymous May 26, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Also agree, analog and simple is the way to go. Wish someone would publish a list of the simplest automobiles to operate.

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