We all want different things from our infotainment systems. But there's been one resounding request from almost everyone: make our smartphones play nice with our dashboard, no matter what device we use. Well, it's here. It's awesome. And, per usual, automakers are stalling.
Delphi invited me to its Mountain View, CA lab to check out its latest R&D projects, and in addition to some slick new user interface ideas and a system that lets you modify your instrument panel's design and configuration from the comfort of your couch (below), it was the seemingly simple stuff that made the biggest impression.
Right now, the problem most new car buyers face is the lack of support for their smartphone. Want a new BMW? You'd better have an iPhone. Same with Audi, VW, Chevy, and even Ferrari. That's not surprising considering the iPod has dominated the portable music player market for a decade and automakers have been supporting that protocol since the mid-00s. But that standard changed with smartphone adoption, and automakers haven't kept up.
To give the people what they want, Delphi's solution is blindingly obvious.
Inside a modified Fiat 500L, Delphi fitted a touchscreen running a custom suite of software that allows owners to choose between Apple's CarPlay system, the all-but-dead MirrorLink interface, and a relatively new offering that connects with Android phones called JustDrive from CloudCar.
With both an iPhone 5S and a Nexus 5 plugged into the system (exactly my situation at home), a trio of icons at the bottom of the display give the driver or passenger complete control of whatever phone they want to connect with.
Press the CarPlay button, and Apple's interface pops up, complete with music, message, maps, and more. Choose MirrorLink, and an auto-centric UI – with large, touch-friendly buttons – appears, along with favorite apps that have been modified for the dash. Same with JustDrive, which connects to the Nexus 5 and provides access to the same music and navigation apps you'd normally fiddle with on a small screen.
And it's not just apps. The system has been set up to allow the driver to use either the car's built-in voice controls, Apple's Siri, or Google Now. Say "navigate to the nearest coffee shop" and voice-guided directions and a map appear in seconds.
It's exactly what we want. Simple, seamless, fast, and using the same device that runs (sometimes begrudgingly) our lives.
But what happens in five years when that antiquated chipset in your dash is on its last legs? Delphi has that sorted too, with a modular, user-replaceable box that lets owners swap the system-on-a-chip that runs things. Upgrade your phone every two years; upgrade your car's brains every four.
It's a win for both consumers and automakers. If we want the latest tech, we get it and we pay for it. And with automakers no longer beholden to the same achingly long product cycles that render their infotainment offerings obsolete the day they land on dealer showrooms, they can finally keep pace with the consumer electronics world.
But as simple and common sense as this sounds, automakers have to cede control. And that's not an easy sell. Some automakers are on board, with Audi offering modular hardware upgrades on a handful of cars, but it's the only automaker to even talk about it, let alone implement it.
And then there's the software side, which automakers refuse to release from their death grip. They want to maintain "branding" and "control", even when these systems provide both a better experience and a secure platform. That's changing with the slow adoption of CarPlay and is set to move even further forward with this week's introduction of Google's Android-powered infotainment offering. But automakers need to get on board with both (at least), do it post haste, and recognize that while they might make solid drivetrains and plush interiors, they can't compete on connectivity.