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Car Tech and Computer Standards: A Plea for a Common Form Factor

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 9/1/2011

Cars and technology seem to be on a crash course. Bluetooth is only the tip of the iceberg, with cars now available with touchscreen controls and streaming Internet radio. That all sounds great - but a reliance on proprietary technology makes car tech less attractive to consumers.

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    The Car Tech Travesty

    My Ford Touch: What Happened To Knobs? I'm a bit of a car guy. Mind you, I can't do much to fix a car, nor will I claim to be a great driver. But I admire cars, and I enjoy driving down a mountain road as much as anyone. I'd take a Mustang over a Camry any day of the week, even if it means making my friends do their best pretzel impression whenever they need a ride.

    Since I enjoy cars, and I enjoy technology, you'd think that I'd love finding tech in cars. Yet my experience so far has been dismal. Poor implementation continues to be a problem, with many manufacturers struggling to create a voice recognition solution that doesn't think you want to call Bryce Dean whenever you ask navigation to find the nearest ice cream shop. Even touchscreens, a technology that's mature in the consumer electronics market, are often poorly implemented in cars.

    My negative impressions don't stand alone. Car tech is often criticized by journalists, and even more frequently by owners, who often aren't as familiar with technology as the reviewers who spend their days driving and writing about cars. Ford's recent MyFord Touch, for example, was supposed to be a cutting-edge system blending the intuitive ease of a touchscreen with old-fashioned automotive controls. Instead it's been a bit of a disaster, roundly blasted for its confusing interface and instability.

    The problem only becomes worse when a car's typical lifespan is considered. Smartphones are often replaced every two years, but that's okay, because they only cost a few hundred dollars, and can be subsidized by carriers. Cars, however, cost tens of thousands of dollars. Only a small number of buyers can afford to purchase a new car every three or four years. In fact, many users can only buy a car used - which means any technology will be far out of date from the moment the buyer sits in the seat.

    Image Credit: GM Inside News

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    Proprietary Solutions - A Choice, Not a Certainty

    Most of the problem with car tech can be traced to the proprietary technology used by every automotive manufacturer. There is absolutely no cross-compatibility, nor do the manufacturers give any apparent thought to how a system might be upgraded in the future. As a result, each automotive company is following its own separate path rather than sharing resources.

    You might be think - well, of course! No company wants to share its technology with others. But in truth, there's plenty of precedent for allowing other companies to become involved in-car manufacturing and after-market customization. Take, for example, the modern car stereo. It wasn't long ago that almost every car on the market came with a head unit that was easy to replace thanks to industry-wide standardization, and many users were happy to take advantage of this feature. It is only recently that auto manufactures have veered away from this trend as they introduce more modern technology to their cars.

    That's not to say every car needs to follow a standard, or that there's no room for custom solutions. My point, however, is that there is a choice. The current proprietary approach isn't the only option, and the auto manufacturers have been successful in the past, even when they used standardized technology that was easy for the owner to replace with parts from a third-party company.

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    Learning from PC Hardware

    Cars Need Their ATX Modern desktop computers are an excellent role model for the automotive industry. They share a lot in common with the technology placed into cars. Both computers and cars have large amounts of space that can be devoted to hardware, but work best when hardware is designed efficiently. Both consist of multiple, often radically different components that must work together to provide a common owner experience. And both are advancing quickly, which means upgrades are frequently required to maintain the quality of the owner's experience.

    There is one big difference, however. Modern computers currently meet the demands of their users, providing a similar experience across multiple devices that users easily understand. Modern cars, on the other hand, are a confusing mish-mash. Even cars from the same company may offer a radically different experience.

    The advantage of modern computers in this regard can be boiled down to standardization. The adoption of x86 software and ATX hardware have virtually eliminated the learning curve attached to a new PC. This was not always the case, however. In the early days of the industry, consumers were faced with a huge variety of platforms which were often incompatible with each other. Confusion was often the result - and the personal computer was adopted as a mass-market item only after standardization occurred.

    Image Credit: Gary Houston

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    Driving Forward

    The current state of computer hardware in cars can't be sustained forever. As computers in phones become more common, owners will begin to demand a better user experience from something as big and expensive as a car. Already, this is beginning to occur. Users of MyFord Touch are noticing that the technology package in their car is far slower and more confusing than their $200 smartphone.

    Standardization, in the form of an automotive ATX format based around a common processor architecture (ARM, most likely) needs to occur sooner rather than later. Technology in cars can still be provided by manufacturers, but it needs to be easily switched out for newer, better tech on a regular basis. As mentioned previously, this idea is not so different from car radios of old. It's not as if this is a solution that has never been tried before.

    Still, skeptics are surely wondering why car companies would do this. After all, owners will be less likely to purchase a new car if their old car doesn't have outdated technology. In my opinion, this is a cynical argument that only poorly managed companies will agree with. Selling a consumer a less satisfying product in hopes that a lack of satisfaction will drive them to buy a new product sooner. Perhaps it will work , but frustration does not build brand loyalty. A competitor offering more choice stands to reap rewards from the tech savvy buyer.