Android for Auto

I think Microsoft has the right approach to automotive electronics through its Microsoft Auto system, available on Ford vehicles as Ford Sync. It pairs up nicely with your mobile phone to allow handsfree calling, and it uses that capability to call 911 in case of an accident; if the airbags deploy or the fuel pump shuts off, the system uses your phone to dial 911. If your phone was destroyed in the accident it won’t be of much help, of course, but it avoids the call center middleman and associated charges of GM’s rival OnStar system. Plus, OnStar’s built-in telephony capability is susceptible to the same kind of failure in the case of an accident.

Another feature of Microsoft Auto/Ford Sync that I like is the web integration; this is so obviously a winner that I can’t believe it won’t become the norm. You register your vehicle (at the stupidly fake-hip named — I mean, seriously? Sync my ride?) and from the website you can read detailed vehicle status reports, upload destinations to the GPS, and the like. That corresponds nicely with reality; I don’t often have to enter new addresses into my GPS and I sure don’t like doing it with some four button interface that was designed by masochist with a sense of humor. A browser interface works quite nicely, thank you.

(The browser interface for automotive electronics ought to extend, I think, to other devices; my wife and I spent an hour on Sunday crouched over the controller for our sprinkler system, trying to figure out how to program the damn thing. Between us we’ve got something close to forty years of education under our belts; you’d think we could figure out how to program station watering times. I eventually got the manual and we faithfully tried to follow the instructions, but we still haven’t set it up properly. A browser-based wizard would have been much nicer; the transport mechanism could be anything — USB, Bluetooth, wifi, ethernet, compact flash, whatever.)

In general, the user interface for automotive electronics leaves a lot to be desired. Mercedes has its COMAND system, BMW’s is called iDrive, Audi has their own, and so on. I guess the GM equivalent is OnStar, and Ford’s Sync? They are building industrial products with these consumer electronics bolted onto them and the awkwardness is obvious. The ads for the COMAND system (COMAND! ALL CAPS! VERY TEUTONIC!) tout its 40 gig hard drive, as if a hard drive is something desirable in a car, which it’s not, and as if 40 gigs is a lot, which it was, a few years ago. I mean, if they said a 40 gig solid state drive, that might be impressive, but only for the time being. Saying it has a 40 gig hard drive shows that they’re trying but failing to be au courant with consumer electronics.

Likewise, I regularly see ads for these expensive vehicles showing off their iPod integration, even though their customers have already stopped buying iPods; and the iPods they show are ancient models, to boot. The result is that you’re looking at an ad for a crazy expensive car thinking, “gee, where’d they get that fat scroll-wheel iPod” instead of thinking “wow! they’re so au courant!”

What these automotive electronic user interfaces have is a lot of buttons. A lot of buttons. Dozens and dozens of buttons. When I rent cars these days, I don’t even bother to try to figure it out, because it’s a futile game. The only one that I ever have gotten to work is Ford’s Sync.

Really, though, I don’t want a consumer electronics device or interface designed by car guys. I want my car designed by car guys and my consumer electronics device designed by, well, Steve Jobs. But Microsoft Auto or Android will work just fine instead.

I’m actually not in the market for a new car — we have two old but paid-for and perfectly functional cars — although I have thought about getting a GPS unit that allows me to make handsfree calls, since my cars predate Bluetooth and built-in GPS units. A fully-equipped Garmin unit runs a couple of hundred dollars, which gets you an astonishingly long set of features, ranging from plain old driving directions to specific lane recommendations — especially useful here in southern California, with its branching and merging freeways — to traffic alerts and an MP3 player. Compare this to the thousands of dollars for the factory-installed GPS systems and you realize that there is just no excuse for how bad the latter really are.

But it’s going to get worse.

Dell is coming out with a range of Android-based mobile phones, tablets, and netbooks. (I have a Dell Mini 9 that is really useful as an extra computer — the solitare-playing, PBS Kids browser machine.) One of the new Dell’s is especially intriguing to me: the Dell Mini 5. With a five inch screen it’s absurdly large for a phone and too small as a regular computer; even my kids complain that the Mini 9 is too small. I didn’t understand what market they could be targeting with this beast, until I saw the accessory list, which includes an elaborate vehicle mount. The Dell Mini 5 will compete with Garmin’s GPS units and the Mercedes COMAND systems; it’s the Android for Autos.

So Dell, and presumably many others, will sell a full-featured general purpose computer with telephony, GPS, address books, and whatever else you might want for your vehicle. Myself, I want the Streetview with driving directions overlay. Application developers, via the Android Marketplace, will vie to create ever-more-functional services (perhaps a one-button application that gives you driving directions to the nearest In-N-Out Burger?), making the already-outdated auto company offerings look faintly ridiculous.

I think Ford’s approach, which is to use the Sync system as a bridge to cloud-based services via a voice recognition system, is probably the most viable option.

I’d like my ideal car of the future to have the basic controls manually adjustable and then to provide the hardware — the built-in screen, the GPS receiver, the interface to vehicle diagnostics, the steering wheel controls, the microphone and speakers, that sort of thing — for my own software to control all the other non-essential stuff. That way, I could have a common ‘operating environment’ for all of my cars, whether that was Android or Apple or Autobuntu or whatever. I would be willing to pay, for example, for sophisticated analytics that would recommend preventitive maintenance based on vehicle diagnostics.

And water my lawn.