Friday, March 01, 2013

The Computer/Car Interface, a game-changer:


This morning I weighed 216.2 pounds.

During my long career as a software developer, everyone held up the automobile as an example of a clean, obvious, trivial-to-learn, easy-to-use, user interface. If you can drive a car, you can drive them all, right?

Not exactly. Not anymore.

Now that manufacturers can design a computer interface for the driver’s convenience, cars can all be different, and it is no longer easy to guess how to perform every function. Fortunately, the most important parts of the interface – the lights, the steering, the brake and the accelerator – haven’t changed much.

My rented Ford Taurus came with a 500 page manual. Many of those pages explained how to control the heating/AC, the radio, the mp3 player, the USB player, the CD/DVD drive, the instrument panel and the computer interface, by issuing voice commands. For most of those commands - trust me on this - if you haven’t learned a Ford Sync car before, you’d never guess the interface; you have to STUDY it.

Leo Laporte, at the TWIT network, loves the Ford Sync features and controls. Having learned some of the commands, I understand his enthusiasm.

Who can possibly learn hundreds of car commands? The owner of the car, that’s who. As you spend thousands of hours driving, you can gradually build up your inventory of commands. And then you have a terrific incentive to buy the same brand of car next time, so that you don’t have to learn an entirely new set of commands.

Within ten years – trust me on this, too – most auto manufacturers will standardize the car-computer-user interface. Most likely, they will make it possible to control a car from any major brand of smart phone. But for now, we have these manufacturer-specific experiments. They place a great burden on the car-rental driver, who – of course – now has a great incentive to always rent the same brand of car.

The bottom line: beyond the basics, Ford, BMW, Cadillac and a few other brands have managed to make the car as abstruse as a new computer.

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