Auto gadgets lag computing power of smartphones

David Sedgwick is a Senior Writer for Automotive NewsDavid Sedgwick is a Senior Writer for Automotive News
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Every time the mobile phone industry sports a cool new app -- such as the Siri voice technology used in Apple's iPhone 4 -- automakers lumber into action with their own version three or four years later.

And that's a problem for which there's no quick fix.

If we take a closer look at Siri, we can see why the auto industry will always lag.

Apple's Siri software is designed to figure out the intent of a user's question. For example, it will respond to the statement, "I'm hungry" with a list of local restaurants.

Great stuff, eh? If automakers can adapt that technology for vehicles, motorists wouldn't have to memorize menus of voice commands.

In 2010, Ford eased its reliance on memorized commands when it introduced 10,000 "aliases" -- alternative word usages -- that its SYNC voice technology would recognize as commands.

That made SYNC more user-friendly, but there are three reasons why this approach has its limits. First, Siri draws on the limitless computing power of "the cloud" to understand and answer the user's questions.

That's problematic in a vehicle. Automakers have to design infotainment systems that will work even if the motorist doesn't have a smartphone or a data plan.

And even if the motorist has a data plan, the infotainment system must function in areas that lack mobile phone reception.

Second, the Apple iPhone -- or any other smartphone, for that matter -- relies heavily on visual readouts. But if you are barreling down the highway at 80 mph, you can't afford to squint at your display screen to sort out lunchtime options.

Sure, automakers are using HTML5, the industry standard for presenting Web content, to create user-friendly graphics. But HTML5 is a tool -- not a panacea.

Ford and General Motors have approved only a handful of infotainment apps because they must make sure they don't confuse or distract the driver.

Third, the average smartphone's processor is a lot more sophisticated -- and expensive -- than the processors used for automotive infotainment. So there will always be a lag in computing power.

The bottom line: If you want to find out what your car's infotainment system will look like three to five years from now, buy a new cell phone. The auto industry will catch up -- eventually.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com.

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