Tech in cars is trumped by the phones we carry in our pockets, says Ben Walker
When Ford says that it is working on the assumption that Apple is building a car, and that its next big competitors are likely to be from outside the traditional automotive industry, you know the sector is in for a big shock.
It can’t come soon enough. Cars have long been behind the curve on technology. Until quite recently, cars were still being produced that lacked Bluetooth or an auxiliary port, so the only way play music or a podcast was if you had them on CD. Not great for a generation that stores all its music on its phones.
The light-sensor technology behind automatic headlights has been around for decades, yet many cars still require human beings to remember to turn them on. Mostly we do. Sometimes we don’t. I was sat in a roadside pub in south London last autumn only to witness a hatchback cart straight into the side of a saloon zipping across the top of the t-junction – it had got dark and the driver had forgotten to turn on her lights. Thankfully, the damage was only to the car.
GPS mapping systems on most people’s smartphones are more elegant and intuitive than many of those integrated into car dashboards. I have been in several vehicles that don’t accept full postal or zip codes, and instead require the driver to tortuously enter the house number and, sometimes, the street name. And when road layouts change, some drivers of older cars struggle – the systems have been discontinued and are impossible to update.
Imagine a car made by Apple or Google. You can tell it which of the 30GB of music you have on your phone you want it to play, and it plays it. Don’t have the track? “Would you like to buy this track for 99p?” Go on then Siri, it’s Friday.
Want to go somewhere? Just tell Google Car or Apple Car where and off you go. “Navigate me to a well-rated hotel near here.” Too hot or too cold? Your Google car knows your climate preferences and will keep you happy. No more leaning down to twiddle dials. Road trips will be changed for the better, forever.
And the south London crash wouldn’t have happened. Phones can already tell when it’s dark enough to pump up their backlight. Doing the same for headlights is child’s play, and will save lives.
Of course, there is nothing to stop traditional carmarkers from equipping their vehicles with fast, intuitive technology that is easy to update and doesn’t require a PhD in car gadgetry to operate. There are already some good examples, but generally the standard has been way below where it ought to be.
There is a big chance that Apple and Google will learn how to make the mechanical bits of cars more quickly than traditional carmakers will learn to make elegant digital interfaces. The carmakers have a challenge heading their way. About time.