Restraint prevailed over all else during the media preview days for this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Instead of celebrity performances, animal stunts and the barely relevant blowouts we’ve come to expect from shows past, a mood of high seriousness reigned. As such, the heavy focus on technology tended in one overwhelming direction: weaning us away from the gas pump. Certainly interactive, connective in-car technologies were on display, but they sat in quiet remove from all those adjustments to the drivetrain. Fair enough, of course.
Even the newest telematics service introduction — Toyota’s Safety Connect, which debuted last week at the Consumer Electronics Show and shown at right — tended toward the serious. Resembling GM’s OnStar more than a standard communication/ entertainment application, this new system doesn’t play your radio or link you to friends. It uses GPS to offer instant connection to emergency service for roadside assistance, medical emergencies, collision notification and locating your vehicle if it’s stolen. Important, reassuring stuff. Also the kind of technology you hope you’ll never use.
Lexus customers do get an upgraded version of the system, Enform, that features two applications — eDestination and Destination Assist — which let you upload directions and information to your car from your home computer and that navigate for you once you’re on the road.
As it happens, there were two dazzling pieces of interactive technology in evidence on the floor: next-generation versions of Ford’s Sync (full disclosure: Ford is a Razorfish client) and Chrysler’s UConnect systems. Each promises to transform the way people use their cars, allowing for seamless transition between home, work and wherever else four wheels can take you. Their primary drawback: they’re nonexistent — at least for now. The two companies are indulging in a little forecasting that does us about as much good as the Batmobile.
Still, they do give us an indication of where things are headed. And they show that at least two American automakers realize that if they’re to reclaim market share, they’re going to have to offer consumers an experience behind the wheel that complements their fully connected lives outside.
Chrysler’s next-generation UConnect was featured as an element of its 200C EV concept, shown above, which was unveiled on Sunday during media preview days for the 2009 Detroit auto show.
The new-model UConnect had its own touch-screen kiosk display on the floor, but it was also featured as an element of Chrysler’s 200C EV concept. The idea is to expand the current offering to become even more networked. While hands-free technology would still be featured, the new system calls for a large touch-screen interface occupying much of the dashboard, allowing drivers or passengers to intuitively click and drag maps, directions, songs and other bits of car-relevant information into and out of the display.
A wireless connection links the car’s system directly to your home computer and your iPhone, allowing you to load music, remotely view the car’s interior via an on-board camera, add all of your contacts into the car’s computer and more. Each driver has a unique profile, which allows the UConnect-equipped vehicle to remember user preferences for radio settings, temperature and seat positions. Parents can use the “teen setting” to limit how fast the car is driven and to warn them if the vehicle is driven erratically. (For anything else, of course, they’ve always got that on-board camera.)
For the music system itself, Chrysler’s taken inspiration from current music sites to allow drivers to rate songs up or down depending on how often they want to hear them. And taking another page from the Web, UConnect will effectively turn a Chrysler into one more element of a social network, using satellite tracking to keep tabs on where your friends are. Or your teen, for that matter.
Immediately before unveiling the Lincoln C Concept, Ford’s Jim Farley showed a clip illustrating how the Sync platform could be expanded even further.
Ford’s vision for Sync takes more of an AI approach. Unveiled as an element of Lincoln’s new C Concept, it too imagines the car performing functions normally reserved for other technologies: calling friends, surfing the Web, reading whatever it finds there, adding appointments to a calendar, organizing music, checking email, among other features. All of these are done through the mediation of a solicitous avatar called “Eva,” a sort-of personal assistant that resides just to the left of the glovebox and takes form on-screen as a woman in her mid- to late-twenties. (Better than a pulsating red light, I suppose.)
Ford clearly plans on making its voice-recognition software sophisticated enough to read your standard New York Times article and respond to a basic conversational tone on the part of the driver. There’s even a suggestion that it might be able to read your mood and suggest appropriate music to suit.
In line with the spirit of wishful thinking, Ford’s concept video shows the driver pulling over to conduct all of her business. One question raised by all these new applications — offering to let us do so much in our cars — is whether we should be doing so much in our cars. The idea, at least, is that it will keep drivers from looking down at maps, texting or scrolling the display on their iPhone.
Assuming the automakers pursue these directions, it will be interesting to watch whether consumers opt for Ford’s curatorial approach or Chrysler’s do-it-yourself model. In either case, it’s heartening to see American automakers take this route. It signals that they’re ready to create demand for something new instead of playing catch-up with the competition and it shows that they’re using the Web as a model for earning back consumer trust and esteem.
Safety Connect photo appears courtesy of Toyota; 200C EV Connect photo appears courtesy of Chrysler; Lincoln C Concept video showcasing the Sync platform appears courtesy of autoshows.ford.com.