Krishnan M.  Anantharaman
Krishnan M. Anantharaman
News Editor

The iPhone's influence on the auto industry

How the iPhone has changed our industry

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We were happy to let the tech press gush over the 10th anniversary of the iPhone last month. Like doting parents, they continue to regard each milestone in the iPhone's brief life as a cause for celebration, apparently ignorant of the engineering miracles required to design and build a modern motor vehicle.

Nonetheless, on this occasion at least, we ought to acknowledge the profound influence the youthful iPhone has had over the century-old auto industry.

Some of it is good. But not all of it.

Mobility: The automobile has long been a symbol of mobility — physical, economic and societal. But its potential has been substantially unlocked by the mobile phone.

Two of the principal models of what we now know as mobility services have the iPhone-style smartphone at their core: Car-sharing services such as Maven require a smartphone app to reserve, unlock and start the rental car. Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft (and possibly the autonomous taxis of the future) connect rides with passengers by combining the many capabilities of the smartphone, including GPS locators, maps, messaging and mobile payments.

As a gateway to mobility services, the good smartphone is becoming that manifestation of personal freedom that the automobile once was. The industry's sales and marketing machines must adapt to the idea that for many people, not owning a car can now be far more liberating than owning one.

Distraction: Vehicle deaths are on the rise again in the U.S., after decades of decline. While safety regulators attribute this to all manner of distractions behind the wheel, the ever-tempting smartphone is a leading suspect.

From the start, the iPhone has proved irresistible to teen drivers and to plenty of experienced ones who ought to know better. News alerts that used to come over the radio between songs ("Beyonce's twins born!") now pop up on a phone screen, all but demanding to be read.

Despite the widespread use of hands-free technology and public-service announcements, drivers are still steering with phones in hand, where they can serve as messaging devices, video players or game machines.

It's this phenomenon, this reversal of a longtime trend toward safer roads, that has set us on the quest for self-driving vehicles. If humans can't be trusted to focus on the road — and laws and PSAs can't make them change their behavior — then a computer must be assigned that task.

Interfaces: The iPhone's tap, swipe and pinch operations are perfectly intuitive — for a hand-held device. Just watch how quickly toddlers adapt to multitouch. They'll soon expect their books and jigsaw puzzles to work the same way.

Alas, automakers and their tech suppliers have fallen for its allure, too, embracing multitouch as a starting point, even when it's wholly impractical for a moving vehicle, and often without including enough processing power to make the screens responsive.

Efforts to replicate iPhone-style graphics, icons, sliders and nested menus on the center-stack screen are undermining good interface design, increasing the likelihood of error and threatening safety.

Multitool: Along with multitouch, the iPhone introduced the modular, multitool approach to mobile phones, where new functionality could be added over time through app downloads and over-the-air updates. This is good. Given what we pay for them, cars should be able to get better in some ways as they age.

At best, we've seen cars become more responsive to their owners through the smartphone, delivering diagnostic information and service reminders, for example, or providing updates on an electric vehicle's charging progress.

But the packing of phones with functionality has also created confusion over how to deliver those functions in the vehicle. Connect via Bluetooth? Via USB? Via the auxiliary audio input? Can I use voice commands to control the temperature, or will Siri intercept that message? Do I use the Spotify option built into the car, or use the app on the phone connected via Bluetooth, or connect to CarPlay and then select it on the car's touch screen? On-board nav, or Google Maps or Apple Maps?

Drivers like options, but they detest needless complexity (four ways of doing the same thing).

Apple CarPlay and its Android counterpart represent attempts at progress. But the industry still hasn't provided enough good options for reducing the complexity introduced by the smartphone.

You can reach Krishnan M. Anantharaman at krishnan@crain.com.

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