After focusing on car technology for the last couple of years, one thing is clear: car makers have integrated new digital technologies in a completely haphazard manner. It's a conservative industry, and it hasn't adapted to the fast-changing world of electronics. A few companies show flashes of vision now and then, but car makers don't lay out road maps for electronics in the same way they do for power trains.
Among the major car makers, I've met quite a few people who understand how upcoming generations will expect cars to have gadgets to help them get to a destination, and entertain them on the drive. But there are also plenty of people in the industry who never burned a CD-RW and don't own an MP3 player. The car industry also has the problem of much longer product cycles, where research and development of a car can take three years, and the model will go for a five-year production run.
What do you hate most about car technology?
We review the most teched-out cars at CNET Car Tech, yet the gadgetry is frequently lacking in some key ways. Here are a few of the things I find wrong with car technology.
Lack of USB ports
USB keys are the most common digital storage devices today. And they are cheap enough that companies often load them with press kits to send out to journalists. Yet the only car I've seen that comes with a USB port is a Fiat, which isn't sold in the U.S. Car makers should start adding a USB pigtail or mounted port in the console or glove box. You could easily load up a 1GB USB key with music and bring it along on road trips. As it is, auxiliary jacks are just starting to become common in cars, and many can't even play MP3 CDs.
Phone book access
Hands-free Bluetooth cell phone systems are starting to appear in a wide range of cars, all the way down to the dirt-cheap Nissan Versa. But the majority of these systems can't access your cell phone's phone book. To call someone, you need to know the number. Many of these systems have their own phone books, where you can manually enter numbers, but maintaining two phone books is not convenient. All of these Bluetooth cell phone systems should follow the example of those in Audis and BMWs, which make your phone book accessible through the car's interface.
Integrated live traffic
Live traffic reporting overlaid on a navigation screen is a really neat trick, but it's not very useful if your map isn't showing you more than a few miles of road. You need to know what traffic problems are happening 10 miles down the road. Navigation systems with live traffic reporting should warn you about problems along the route you have programmed, or even just along the road on which you are traveling. The only systems I've seen this level of integration are in the Lexus LS 460 and LS 600h, and on the Pioneer Avic Z1.
Every car should have an LCD mounted in the center of the dashboard, even if it doesn't have a navigation system. LCDs are great in that you can use the same bit of dashboard space to show all sorts of different information, instead of spreading buttons and small LED screens all over. I've seen many cars that have an LCD showing navigation information, a separate radio display screen for audio information, then maybe some other LEDs for climate control. This kind of mess happens because navigations systems are usually optional, along with their accompanying LCDs. So far, I've only seen one car, the Infiniti G35, that comes with an LCD even if you don't get the navigation system.
So far I've only seen blind-spot warning systems in two cars, the Audi Q7 and the Volvo S80. From my experience, it was very easy to adapt to using these systems, and they are incredibly useful. I hope these systems become widely available soon, because I especially want the people driving in the lanes around me to have them. Similarly, backup cameras and park-distance warning systems should all be come more widely available. Backup cameras should be mandatory on cars that have a rear window more than 4 feet off the ground. Park-distance warning systems on any size car can prevent thousands of dollars in body damage.
Satellite radio antennas
On a few cars I've seen, satellite radio really looks like an afterthought. The satellite radio antenna is stuck to the inside of the windshield with a wire running into the headliner. If I wanted this kind of implementation, I could get it done at a car stereo installer, probably for cheaper than the option from the car maker. I prefer systems that look like they were designed to be part of the car, the way BMWs have their nice little fin antenna.