The Problem With In-Car Entertainment Systems

I drive a lot of cars, one of the perks of the job.  That means that my iPhone has been connected to more USB ports than most.  She gets around.  What I’m trying to say is that I’ve gotten quite familiar with various automaker and brand-specific in-car entertainment (ICE) systems out there.  They all suck.

Microphones

The first, and most consistent reason why all ICE systems suck is the microphone.  It is easily the weakest link across almost every system I have used and is a major reason why I have stopped using them in my own vehicles.  I’ve been told that I have a nice mid-Atlantic American accent, which is to say, none at all.  Growing up in Maryland, I mercifully don’t have any of the Baltimore pronunciations.  While I love the state’s largest city, I don’t use the word “hon” nor do I say “dawn” like”don,” “stalk” like”stock,” or “talk” like “tock.”  Point is, I speak in a pretty normal, accent-free manner.  The damn microphone still doesn’t pick up what I’m saying.  Ever.  Or at least not consistently.  I raise my voice to an awkward level, yelling at the car, pleading to please transcribe my voice to text in an effective manner.  No, that doesn’t do it.  You may be saying “yeah, but Siri is a bitch and it’s her fault”.  I agree, she is a bitch, but when I pick up the device and speak into it, she usually writes what I say.  So no, in this case it’s the mic.  Are automakers going with the lowest bidder?  There have to be better options out there.

Integration

I am using Apple’s CarPlay this week in a 2016 Chevrolet Impala press car, and at first I was blaming that part of the system for what is easily the most annoying ICE function yet.  But it’s not Apple’s fault, it’s GM’s.  I use Waze to and from work every day, DC traffic is awful.  So when my iPhone is plugged into the system and “vehicle stopped on shoulder ahead” pops up, my SiriusXM station disappears and “iPod” shows up on the dashboard.  Typically after the alert has already finished.  You would think that the system would revert back to Comedy Central radio, right?  No, the decision has been made, the system has decided to stick with the music on my phone and AC/DC’s Back in Black is now playing.  “Good song” you are saying, and that’s true, but after the 14th time you hear the first few bars of the song, you’re ready to punch Brian Johnson in his face.  So I switch back to the radio, missing the punchline to that joke I was paying close attention to.  Thanks ICE, you suck.  Of note, Android Auto, CarPlay’s Google-based competitor, seems ready to integrate 3rd party apps like Waze.  Most articles I read, as recent as last week, continue to use the future tense, so it doesn’t seem to have happened.

Apple CarPlay Ferrari

Limited 3rd Party Apps

Which brings me to the larger issue, if you want to use an app that’s not built by either the automaker or the brand-specific plug-in, Apple in this case, sorry.  I have been saying for years that the navigation system on my car is useless.  Which is why neither of my daily drivers has one.  My phone is more robust, it gives me much more real-time information and I don’t have to “update” anything on the car to make it understand the complexities of the latest DC beltway on-ramp construction.  But, as you just read, using Waze, while being connected to the ICE system doesn’t work.  And I don’t want to use Apple Maps.  I like getting where I’m going.  So, this morning I yanked the USB out and plugged it into a 12 volt socket adapter I keep with me.  That applies to many other apps you want to use during your commute, so please, just project my phone onto the screen.  I know, there could be some consistency issues with regard to resolution or other visual miscues, but the app works on my phone, why not on the car’s screen?  I don’t want a redundant set of icons up there that don’t work as well as they do on my phone.

Generally Limited Apps

Which brings me to what you do get.  I already established that it’s not the 3rd party apps you’ve already grown accustomed to.  My Apple CarPlay screen has something like 8 incredibly large app icons including, Phone, Text, Music, Now Playing (more music), Pandora, Maps, AudioBooks, and Podcasts.  Seriously, the icons are easily 10x bigger than a normal app you may be used to on your phone.  Same goes for the text screen, I felt like someone assumes I’m geriatric and can’t see the apps, or maybe that’s because there just aren’t many available.  The ones you do get work.  Mostly.  Siri insists on reading my text messages to me vs. allowing me to read them.  I guess that’s convenience and safety triumphing over useability and function.  What if I’ve got coworkers in the car and don’t want my texts read aloud?  I guess I can choose not to click on them.  Another issue is once you are in an app on the screen, you’d better not want to do something else with your phone because CarPlay has taken over the screen and won’t let you back out until you back out on the car’s screen.  It’s all a little clunky and annoying and made me just want to use the apps on my phone.  Combine that with the fact that the car’s microphone can’t pick up what I’m saying, and it makes the voice to text reply all that much more useless.  Three times this morning I had to re-record my text reply to my Wife because it kept erroneously transcribing my words.

Apple CarPlay Cadillac

So What?

So, to summarize, the problem is “control”.  The ICE interface wants to limit your engagement with the system to the apps it approves in the manner in which it approves them (read: safely).  It’s a step in the right direction, I’ll give them that.  And if all the hype at the Consumer Electronics Show is accurate, we’ll be seeing even closer ties between auto manufacturers and those who are screwing together our cell phones.  That may result in screen-heavy cars like the Volvo up in the header image.  If they can legitimately give me the same functionality on my car screen that I get on my device, we may be getting somewhere.  I envision it more like an emulator or projector that simulates my phone’s screen, but on the car’s screen.  Of course, we hold our phones in portrait mode most of the time and a car’s screen is landscape.  So it’s not a 1:1 ratio with regard to resolution and layout.  So there are some challenges, but not insurmountable ones.  For now, I’m done shouting at my car to try and convince it to work correctly via my smartphone.  I’m cutting out the middle man and yelling directly at my phone.