Turns out that maybe American drivers are more sensible than either the U.S. government or automakers give them credit for. New research shows that when it comes to "infotainment" and "telematics" in cars, auto owners are much more interested in Point-A-to-Point-B applications such as navigation than they are in making sure they can feed their Twitter account from the driver's seat.
Mobile applications are encroaching in the vehicle — look at Ford's Sync voice-activated technology, Hyundai's Blue Link, GM's OnStar, the Mercedes-Benz "iPhone on wheels" concept and Apple's iOS 6 announcement that it's integrating Siri voice recognition as an "eyes-free" (from the device, not the road) digital sherpa. Look for Siri voice command buttons on the steering wheels of upcoming vehicles from nine automakers: Land Rover/Jaguar, BMW, GM, Mercedes, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler, and Honda. (Update: the news took at least one of the auto brands by surprise — Fast Company reports that Chrysler wasn't aware of being included in Apple's announcement.)
But for all the push of technology and connectivity into the passenger seat, consumers don't want Facebook and Twitter integrated into the driving experience, nor are they looking for a Zooey Deschanel-style chat about adding reminders or what to listen to (sorry, Siri).
What they want are "specific applications that make sense when they're driving," said Thilo Koslowski, an influential connected-vehicle analyst with Gartner, at a telematics conference in Detroit last week, according to the Detroit Free Press. That includes real-time weather forecasts and information about parking availability as well as built-in vehicle-navigation systems and automated crash-crash notification systems such as OnStar. This bodes well for Siri for hands-free and eyes-free navigation, thanks to turn-by-turn navigation in the upcoming iOS 6.
Such preferences pointedly don't include seamless in-vehicle access to social media, the analyst noted. "This is again reminding you that you have to be careful not to confuse the car with your mobile phone or your laptop," Koslowski told attendees. "The car is very different in terms of what it has to provide."
The car's primary task is still safe transportation, and with distracted driving leading to more and more deaths, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been leaning hard on the auto industry to keep safety uppermost in their calculations as they bring one new wireless application after another into the car, many of them to make it easier for drivers to communicate with the outside world while they're driving.
But that grim reality remains a far cry from the logical next step that automakers are taking: that consumers won't buy vehicles if they can't update their Facebook pages by talking into a hidden mic in the steering wheel. Gartner's research seems to support the notion that drivers really do want to focus on the task at hand instead of piloting a rolling iPad, and so they tend to favor mainly the apps that can help them get that job done.
The closest that any of the top things consumers "want" in a vehicle that comes to a needless distraction is voice-recognition command. But of course those are used in many vehicles to instruct navigation and security systems, not to find the nearest artisanal pizza joint. And there's still the bigger issue of how distracting all this interacting will prove to be.
How Siri's "eyes-free" in-car technology will work, according to Apple's website:
Apple is working with car manufacturers to integrate Siri into select voice control systems. Through the voice command button on your steering wheel, you’ll be able to ask Siri questions without taking your eyes off the road. To minimize distractions even more, your iOS device’s screen won’t light up. With the Eyes Free feature, ask Siri to call people, select and play music, hear and compose text messages, use Maps and get directions, read your notifications, find calendar information, add reminders, and more. It’s just another way Siri helps you get things done, even when you’re behind the wheel.
But do we need to "get things done behind the wheel" other than driving safely and paying attention? The New York Times' Sam Grobart comments that Siri's "voice commands may not be visually distracting, but they may be cognitively distracting. We may be entering an age where we can send text messages by voice and hear Facebook posts read aloud to us — and that’s clearly better than trying to do that on a smartphone, with one hand while the other is on the wheel — but maybe these activities are better left outside the car altogether?"
Sounds like automakers need more research to really listen, not to Siri and her ilk — but to consumers, and experts in cognitive function.
Below, more on U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's campaign to fight distracted driving and pressuring states to ban texting and hand-held cellphone use by drivers. LaHood calls the problem "a national epidemic".