Take a walk around an auto show and you'll find that every car company wants to tell you about its great new in-car electronics, its apps, and its haptics. At the New York auto show, Jaguar gave a presentation on the system in the new XF, which, according to my notes, is called MeowConnect 10.5. It looks like a nice setup, and is surely a big improvement over the Pong console that powered the old system. The new will let you share your car's navigation info, which sounds useful. That way you won't keep getting texts that read: "ETA? The salmon's getting cold and the gazpacho's getting warm," forcing you to reply, via speech-to-text, "You're the one who wanted me to take this big promotion, Evalyn." Which comes out as, "You won hippopotamus do-dah bug lotion, Ivan!" And you send it anyway, because what does it matter? Evalyn's as frigid as that gazpacho was.
At the XF debut, Jag did two presentations—one for the car itself and one for ol' HAL there in the dash. That speaks to the growing complexity of our automotive electronics—a given model might have a thick owner's manual for the car and then an even thicker one for the TouchingMeTouchingYou 2.0 Digital User Interface System 2.1 (it got upgraded since you started reading this sentence). Dare I say that maybe we're trying a little too hard with this stuff?
Consider CUE, Cadillac's sleek-looking system. Not many people know this, but CUE is the reason that Cadillac moved to New York. They were actually just trying to move across the street, but they put the directions into CUE and the next thing you know: Hello, Big Apple! CUE is fun because it uses a motion sensor to change the screen as your hand approaches. No, I'm not making that up. CUE is like the guy reaching out to shake your hand and then yelling, "Psyche!" and slicking his hair back instead.
Of course, you can avoid CUE's mysterious runes and tremors by simply telling it what you want to do—a strategy proffered by many a car company as an alternative to recalcitrant in-dash systems. "Well, have you tried the voice commands?" No, I haven't. I don't care how good the software gets. I don't even like talking to my friends. I definitely don't want to talk to my car. Not even to boss it around.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that carmakers indulge the temptation to cram in every feature that might theoretically have a moment of utility over a car's life span. For example, I just tried Infiniti's new InTouch system in the . Several menus down the infotainment rabbit hole, I had the car giving me movie times for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. A disclaimer at the bottom of the screen read, "Screening times displayed are not always up to date." I suppose this function would be useful, if something happened to your phone—maybe you ran it over?—and you then had to use your car to find uncertain movie times. But in all likelihood, you would never miss this feature if you never had it, leaving your car and your life just a little bit simpler.
Besides complication creep, the lead time inherent in car development means that in-dash electronics tend to be outdated the day a new model hits the lots. My own car is pretty up-to-the-moment on its driver-related electronics, including autonomous braking, radar-enhanced cruise control, and robo-parking. And yet, to load a wallpaper photo on the dash screen, you need to burn photo files onto a CD-R, which then disgorges them onto a hard drive buried somewhere in there. I thought it would be nice to surprise my wife with photos of the kids for Mother's Day, and now two years later we've still got the same shots on rotation. My current laptop doesn't even have a CD drive, presenting the possibility that the gallery on the screen now might become a permanent installation.
It delights me to think that in 15 or 20 years, my vehicle might be on a seedy used-car lot, a salesman yelling: "Hey, Bobby! Get over here! You know how to get da photos of deese here kids in da wheelbarrow off da dash screen?" And Bobby won't know how to do that, because it looks like you need a CD or something, which is hilarious to him.
Now, lest you think I'm a grouchy technophobe, I'll have you know that I like to Snapchat the Tinder on my Oculus Rift as much as the next guy. I completed both the original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2, so it's not like I have a problem navigating the mushrooms and sewer pipes of the digital world. But I don't need very much of that in my car. You know what you need in a car? A radio and directions.
If I designed an infotainment system, that would be the name: Radio and Directions. Sure, I'd customize it for each company—Tunz 'n Turns by Scion!—but the idea would be the same. The nav system would just be a screen that mirrors whatever your phone is doing, while the stereo would look like a Marantz receiver and mirror whatever your phone is doing. Thus freeing you to pay attention to my awesome new app: I call it "driving."