Car tech: say the command

Car tech: say the command
Photograph by Adam Levey; Model by Megan Caponetto; Additional prop styling by Birte von Kampen; Illustrations by Andrew DeGraff Interiors by Nick Ferrari
Date:23 February 2011 Tags:, , , , , , , ,

The car of the future is here, and it’s a voice-activated, GPS-guided, Web-enabled wonder. PM tests the best of the high-tech crop.The female voice emanating from the dashboard of the Ford Fiesta asks which feature I want to activate. By G E Anderson

The female voice emanating from the dashboard of the Ford Fiesta asks which feature I want to activate.

“Services,” I say.

“Connecting to services,” the voice says. “Google Maps has sent you a location: 300 West 57th Street, New York, New York. Do you want directions to that location?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Great,” the voice says. “Hold on while I get your location.”

How the navigation system “knew” the location of the Popular Mechanics office is a technological marvel now familiar to many drivers of new cars. I used Google Maps to dial up and send the address, tagged with my cellphone number, to Ford’s digital-information cloud. When I got behind the wheel of the Fiesta, the nav system recognised my phone via Bluetooth and downloaded the address from the cloud.

I was impressed. But, to test the practicality of the system, I intentionally made a wrong turn – and the voice quickly gave me directions I knew were incorrect.

“Directions!” I barked. “Turn right in 200 feet,” the voice suggested, guiding me back on course.

Happy to be back on speaking terms with the car (I felt sort of bad for raising my voice), I gave a voice command to call Alan Hall, a Ford spokesman, whose name and number are coded into my phone. We were connected in a matter of seconds, and he admitted that the company’s Sync system – while loaded with functionality – still has some kinks. “In cities, the navigation can be problematic,” he told me. “Sometimes the buildings get in the way, so the system triangulates your position, and that doesn’t always provide the most accurate location.”

Finding tiny flaws in impressive systems is part of a PM editor’s job description, and there has never been a better time to take a close look at the burgeoning array of information, entertainment and communication technologies now being stuffed into new cars. The automobile has reached a thrilling, historical turning point. In the past, cars owed their evolutionary growth spurts mostly to endemic tech; for example, the accelerator pedal (as opposed to a throttle mounted on the steering column), electronic ignition, hydraulic brakes and automatic transmission. But the current changes are fundamentally different – and, perhaps, more sweeping – because they’re driven by advances outside the automotive realm, namely, in the fast-moving worlds of digital connectivity and information technologies. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, but so much has changed over just the past two, it’s astonishing,” says Fran Dance, former service manager of ConnectedDrive for BMW of North America.

Although auto-infotainment features are pouring into the market, they’re still so new – and far from achieving standardisation – that we decided to evaluate six of the most advanced systems. We chose vehicles from a wide range of price points, from moderately priced to the likes of the high-end Audi A8, and tested three core functions: navigation, communication and entertainment (audio). We focused primarily on the systems’ functionality and user-friendliness. How are the different features activated? Do they live up to their billing, improving the car’s efficiency and enhancing the overall driving experience?

As few as five years ago, we wouldn’t have been asking these questions. But, in 2007, Ford introduced its Sync system, signalling the paradigm shift in driver– vehicle interface, or what the industry calls HMI, for “human–machine interface.” (PM recognised Sync with a Breakthrough Award that year.) Today, as Ford launches Sync 2.0, known as MyFord Touch, every major carmaker is racing to develop and introduce new “telematics and infotainment” features. The suite of features is mind-boggling: hands-free phone connectivity; navigation with real-time traffic updates and directions to the nearest restaurant (complete with an online review); stateof- the-art audio; vehicle diagnostics; emergency response assistance; automatic downloads of personal address books and music playlists from iPods, iPhones and BlackBerries; and even concierge services and Web-search capability. As if that weren’t enough, the next-gen systems will routinely offer Wi-Fi, a range of social-networking technologies and more.

If you think that sounds overwhelming, you’re on to something. The brochure for the MyFord system notes the consumer demand for “simplexity”, meaning more features with simpler interfaces. “And the pace of advancement is expected to continue unabated,” the pamphlet notes, “posing a growing problem for drivers and engineers alike.”

The problem boils down to driver distraction. In the US during 2008, the last year for which national statistics are available, 5 870 people died and an estimated 515 000 people were injured in crashes attributable to activities such as texting while driving and using in-vehicle technologies, the country’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported. Last September, after GM’s OnStar introduced a feature to let drivers check Facebook messages and update their status, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called for carmakers to “put safety before entertainment”.

But OnStar president Chris Preuss, who calls Facebooking while driving safe, contends that the benefits of the new technologies outweigh the dangers. He cites a potentially life-saving crashresponse system, now in testing by GM. “We can use it to tap into the 1 600 sensors in your car and tell how fast you were going before your airbags deployed, and predict what kind of injuries you might have,” Preuss says. “So, for instance, we can tell the doctor before you get to the hospital that you have a 70 per cent chance of internal injuries and should get an MRI.”

Preuss’s comments point to carmakers’ ambitious plans for even greater integration of sophisticated information systems. One motivation is purely commercial: luxury-car buyers expect the features to be standard equipment, and optional infotainment packages are all but a sure sell, regardless of price point. And if the tech evolves as expected, the safety issue may well be moot because future systems will be highly personalised and based almost solely on voice commands. This will reduce driver distraction as the connection between human and machine becomes seamless. Now, there’s a future we can live with.

Audi A8
Infotainment system: Multi Media Interface (MMI), standard
Pros: Excellent graphical interface for dialling phone numbers and addresses. Detailed search provides directions to nearby points of interest. Automatically loads thousands of iPod songs in seconds. Large LCD screen provides super-clear GPS maps and other graphics, including a personal address book.
Cons: The Bluetooth connection to the testers’ cellphones took a minimum of 3 minutes. One tester found the voice-recognition function “not that sharp” and often had to repeat commands. Failed to play videos stored on iPod.
Best feature: The touchpad converts handwriting to digital text commands, a clever layer of functionality not found in the other test cars. Want navigation to Denver, for instance? Use a fingertip to write “Co” for the state, and Colorado pops up; scrawl “De” for Denver; press Enter and you’re locked in.
Grade: A

BMW 7 Series
Infotainment system: iDrive, standard
Pros: The systems are intuitive, easy to use and loaded with features. (Just in case, there are written instructions spelling out how to use the systems.) Maps display clearly on the HD LCD screen. Ease of use and clean design minimise driver distraction. The controls – in particular, the combination joystick/scroll wheel/ Enter button – provide good tactile feedback.
Cons: Apple players require a special cable for hook-up. Phone pairing requires a passkey. Unable to access personal address book via voice command.
Best feature: Navigation destinations can be pinpointed with Google search. This makes for travel that’s more efficient or more fun, depending on your goal.
Grade: A

Jaguar XJ (not tested)
Infotainment system: HDD, Dual View 20 cm touchscreen.
Details: “Virtual instruments” (below) allow new ways of presenting information and help prioritise the most useful information. Many functions can be activated via the dual-view touchscreen (right), eliminating dashboard switch clutter: it controls sat-nav, climate control, audio and communications. A powerful Media Hub with HDD and two USB ports provides comprehensive connectivity for portable audio and video devices. Jaguar’s latest-generation Interactive Voice control system uses the cluster display to present a list of prompts for key words to control a particular function. Gracenote is included to allow artist and track information to be recognised.

Mercedes-Benz S-Class (not tested)
Infotainment system: COMAND, with HDD and voice control.
Details: Music Register allows loading of around 2500 digital music files in MP3, AAC or WMA format; Gracenote database recognises music tracks on a CD/DVD and shows the title, album and artist on the colour display. A Music Search function can be used to find specific music tracks and performers on SD memory cards, USB sticks, CDs and DVDs. Interfaces include Bluetooth link for mobile phone; “Comfort telephony” allows driver and passengers to conduct onboard telephone conferences by mobile phone, and send or receive SMS messages. Linguatronic voice control system operates the radio, CD/ DVD-player, CD/DVDchanger, navigation system and telephone. Thanks to the universal Media Interface, portable audio devices can be connected to and controlled by the infotainment system. Optional Splitview display (below) makes it possible for driver and front passenger to view different content on the same screen at the same time.

Jeep Grand Cherokee
Infotainment system:
Uconnect, standard
Pros: Quickly (2 minutes or less) and automatically pairs with phone, downloading contacts and playlists. Can store music and contacts on hard drive.
Cons: Navigationscreen graphics are uninspired, and it takes several unintuitive steps to display contacts. Routes selected by the navigation system not always the shortest or most direct.
Best feature: Like the Jeep itself, the system is simple and user-friendly; one voice command activates most functions.
Grade: B+

Lexus HS 250h
Infotainment system: Lexus HDD Navigation System (US price approximately R20 000)
Pros: Audio tutorial gives thorough instructions on using the various features. Extremely responsive voice-command system; suggested shortcuts reduce driving time. Navigation system easily programs addresses from personal phone.
Cons: Poor microphone quality on hands-free phone. The nav system has kinks. For instance, when a map is displayed, the function menu disappears and must be called up with a separate step. Also, zooming in and out is difficult.
Best feature: The console-mounted controller combines the functionality of a computer mouse and a joystick. The device provides tactile feedback, but we still think scroll wheels are easier (and safer) to use while driving.
Grade: A –

Road Worrier: I got to wondering: is this the end of the paper map? I like the feel of an atlas in my hands and the broad perspective that a map provides. But if the new GPS can distract a driver, a paper map as big as a pizza box is worse.
– Mike Allen, PM Senior Automotive Editor

Imperfect pairing: the control of my iPod varied. One system displayed the song list alphabetically (instead of retaining the device’s menu structure), so finding tracks was tedious. Another replicated the iPod, but it took forever to download my library. My advice: test the system before you buy.
– Larry Webster, PM Automotive Editor

Nowheresville: The BMW refused to accept the address for the PM auto shop in New Jersey, which is in a sparsely populated township. No combo of area code, town or street names could pinpoint the location. I had hoped the system would be more intuitive, that is, able to chart a course based on the information I provided and the GPS overlay – but that wasn’t the case.
– Mike Allen

Safe and sorry: Unable to enter an address into the Lexus GPS while driving, I stopped on the shoulder of the Garden State Parkway to punch in the address. A New Jersey State Trooper pulled up behind me, lights flashing, and wrote me a ticket for making a non-emergency stop.
– Mike Allen

False Positive: The A8 nav system warned of a major crash ahead on the Massachusetts Turnpike, suggesting an elaborate detour. I ignored it, stayed the course and found no crash.
– Larry Webster

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