Smartphones, Cars, and Democracy

Infotainment Dystopia

If we live in the multiverse, there exists some dystopian reality where car manufacturers are the primary software companies in the world. This would truly be a depressing existence. With virtually no exceptions, all automotive head units run god awful software. The UI is usually decked out in skeuomorphic chrome and carbon fiber. Touch inputs are laggy, and app support is either laughable or nonexistent.

Barely a metaphor for car infotainment software

Now, automotive software generally has some hefty restrictions given where it’s deployed. It needs to integrate into cruise control, engine performance, heating/cooling systems and more. It needs to be particularly resilient and responsive to important things like, you know, braking. Hence most of the software runs on a RTOS. And unlike you phone or tablet that you can easily upgrade whenever, car software needs to be designed to last a long time. Even with all those restrictions, you’d think someone would get it right (maybe Tesla?).

When Better Does Not Mean Good

If they did, there would be no room for third-party solutions like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. But given that Toyota just announced they were finally relenting and will support both on upcoming vehicles, the market clearly has spoken.

This is not to say that either is objectively good software either. Both are essentially further lock-in schemes to perpetuate dependance on their platforms. I started thinking about this based on this post by Carlo Costanzo. He hates that Apple CarPlay doesn’t support Waze and forces him to use Google Maps. But Google does the same thing. Heck, they own Waze and it still took them two years to bring it to Android Auto. While Apple definitely has a preference for their own apps (surprise), Google is only marginally better, it’s not like TomTom’s navigation app works on the platform. If Apple really wanted to play hardball, they could lock out competing music and podcast services, but I’m still able to use Google Play Music and Overcast on CarPlay.

You can argue whether CarPlay or Android Auto is the superior choice. Neither is all that great overall, while still being vastly superior to almost anything put out there by the auto industry. At the very least, they provide a consistent and portable interface between vehicles. Buying a new car doesn’t mean having to learn a completely new UI. Ultimately, whether for safety or competitive reasons, the app selections are very limited and locked down.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quote on democracy:

Many forms of Government Infotainment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy CarPlay/Android Auto is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy CarPlay/Android Auto is the worst form of Government Infotainment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Carlo Costanzo comments:

With the new Chevy Bolt EV in my garage now, I was super excited that I had a car that properly supported CarPlay. Although the Chevy Bolt EV does not support Wireless CarPlay (like some 2018 models), I was still super excited.
We will just jump to the end of the story now and I’ll tell you again that I really hate it.

Read more at: Why I HATE Apple’s CarPlay.

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.