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Detroit Auto Show: The Problem with GM and Ford’s Smart Phone Connections

MyLink and Sync are convenient, but they’re slaved to clunky touch screens and voice recognition systems.
January 10, 2012

A key problem with adding computer-like functionality to your car’s dashboard is that, because of the long, multiyear lead times for developing cars, interfaces and functionality tend to be outdated as soon as the car rolls of the production line, and will be hopelessly clunky by the time you’ve had the car for five years.

GM’s MyLink. Credit: GM

Ford partially addressed this with its Sync system, which uses Bluetooth to connect the driver’s smart phone to the car’s speakers, and which uses voice activation to make calls. GM recently announced a similar system, called MyLink. At CES this week GM announced that My Link will be available on its 2013 Sonic and its 2013 Spark EV. Such systems are as up to date as the driver’s phones, in theory.

But with both systems you’re still stuck with the built-in touch screen. Key characteristics—the responsiveness, multitouch ability, and the clarity, resolution, and brightness of the screen—will always lag behind the latest offerings from smart phone manufacturers and devices such as the iPad. And you’ve got to learn how to navigate the car’s system and go through the process of pairing your devices. Similarly, if the system relies on the car’s built-in microprocessors for voice recognition, this is bound to seem slow compared to the latest Siri-like applications on personal devices.

Why not just provide a versatile mounting station for whatever device a person owns to replace the car’s touch screen? If a driver doesn’t own one, throw one in with the financing of the car—it would be a relatively cheap add-on. Of course, it would be challenging to design this so that it doesn’t look ugly—a station big enough to hold an iPad could look strange holding an iPhone. But it’s worth the effort to make a drivers’ expensive cars feel as up to date as the relatively cheap device in their pockets.

The automaker’s know that consumers want this: “Customers all over the world told us they’ve set up their smart phones exactly how they want them, and the ideal car radio should extend the capabilities of their smartphone rather than try to duplicate them,” said Sara LeBlanc, GM global infotainment program manager, in a press release this week. LeBlanc said GM has answered this desire with MyLink, but that’s only a partial solution.

MyLink and Sync are about allowing drivers to access some of their smart phones’ functions. The next step is allowing devices to make use of information from the car’s internal network, such as steering wheel angle, GPS information, and vehicle speed, or even engine data and controls. For more on that, see, “Ford Bets on the Digital Car.”

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