Cadillac and Tesla Bring the In-Car Technology Showdown to the Germans
There's been a battle brewing in your car for your attention. You may have noticed it. Today some form of navigation or digital entertaiment system is offered as an option for almost every car on the market. Leading the way have been the iDrive-derived systems of BMW and Audi's MMI . Where others have proven to be clunky, slow or just plain annoying, the Audi and BMW systems have evolved to manage complex system with relative simplicity. However, the Germans may have lost their edge to newest generation of info-tainment systems from Cadillac and Tesla. Though your driver's ed teacher would argue things went downhill with the introduction of the in-car radio, things didn't start to snowball until the first in-car navigation systems appeared in the 1980's. Believe it or not, if you walked into a Honda dealership in 1981 you could check the option box for Electro-Gyrocator and you would never get lost. Ever. We've never seen one probably because Electro-Gyrocator was $2,000 option on an $8,000 car.
The first navigation system as we know it today appeared on the 1994 BMW 750Li. Since then, BMW has lead the market and everyone else has been playing catchup. The latest BMW navigation system called 'Professional' is for all intents and purposes a computer. It uses a 1.3 GHZ processor and a dedicated 3D graphics chip capable of pulling Yelp reviews for that new Sushi restaurant in town. It also features voice-to-text recognition/dictation, a touchpad interface (similar to Aud's MMI), a 4G hotspot, and ConnectedDrive which offers a 20 GB hard drive for media playback and will provide Android support for in-car applications as early as July 2013. This is in a car with a 155-mph top speed. Not to worry though, as ConnectedDrive has numerous accident avoidance systems in place.
The MMI system from Audi is pretty similar to the iDrive system. Actually it's so similar it's really a wonder that BMW never sued Audi. To give Audi credit, they were the first to integrate touch handwriting into their system, so we'll give them an A for effort. For the most part, both systems are very unidirectional, as they do not interact with the driver so much as they react.
Which is why the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) system currently available in the XTS, SRX and the ATS is such an interesting concept. It's a big step forward (though not a leap) in getting electronic systems in the car to react as the engine, tires and brakes would. Thanks to haptic feedback, CUE provides the driver the same level of interaction we've come to expect on tablets and smartphones. With the ability to recognize simple gestures, and enough vibrations to double as a sex toy, there's enough interaction to ensure that the driver isn't entirely focused on the techno-gadgetry. Which is what we find particularly pragmatic about the CUE system, it strikes a nice balance between futuristic minimalism and "so easy your grandma can use it" functionality.
However, we think the Tesla Model S may the CUE beat, simply because the software engineers at Tesla and Google had the gumption to go big. 17-inch touch screen big. When it comes to cars, size does matter, a lot. Think about it, 17 inches is what a decent sized monitor used to be not too long ago, and now its in your car running your car. The 17-inch display is big part of how Tesla intends to reinvent, and revolutionize the automobile industry by making "the greatest car ever".
The display can be broken into two parts with radio or the navigation occupying the top portion and things like climate control, or other in car systems on the bottom. Also, the entire display can be used as a map, radio or media player. Is this distracting? Probably at first, when most owners are like "wow cool", but we think the extra large display will just allow for more information to be displayed clearly.
Though naysayers have been quick to dismiss the effiorts behind technology integration in American cars (and rightfully so), it would be a mistake to toss the CUE and Tesla systems into that bucket. What we're witnessing this year is the first generation of info-tainment systems that will challenge the notion of how drivers should interact with cars going in the future.
Both Microsoft and Harman plan to introduce infrared technology in cars very soon which means all sorts of possibilities as far as gesture recognition goes. The systems will bring to market the same system of sensors we've seen on Xbox KINECT and in bathrooms, which could either be a blessing or a disaster, but they're at least three years of testing and development away.
Simply put, Tesla and Cadillac currently allow drivers to interact with their stereos, climate control, media and navigation systems the way they've always wanted to. The best part about having our prayers answered is that our dreams are next. We say it's about time.