Why My Next Car Needs to be LESS Digital

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?