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Somebody Should Tell Carmakers That Nobody Uses Their Poor In-Car Navigation Systems

This is coming back again and again as carmakers scramble to cram more and more features inside their infotainment systems. Most of them are just gimmicks and nobody uses them beyond the first encounter, while others could be useful but are so poorly designed and implemented that most prefer to avoid them. Nevertheless, the car industry spends billions on developing software and this is a real shame, as there are better alternatives on the market.
Mercedes-Benz A-Class with MBUXAndroid Auto interface on a BMW carAndroid Automotive on the 2022 Hummer EVAndroid Automotive on the 2022 Hummer EVAndroid Automotive on the 2022 Hummer EV
One prime example is the navigation system. Almost every vehicle on the market today, even in the lower echelons, features an in-dash navigation system. This was a coveted feature back in the days when smartphones did not exist. Only the most exclusive models at the top of their lines came with navigation, and this commanded steep prices.

In the past five years, though, smartphone apps have become way better. It’s hard imagining somebody ditching Google Maps or Waze for the in-dash navigation that often lacks the most basic features like real-time reports. Besides, the smartphones’ ever-so-bigger screens became sharper and brighter than most car displays.

The final nail in the coffin was when the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfaces became the norm in the vehicles. It wasn’t easy at first, with carmakers reluctant to let Google and Apple dictate the game on their turf. But once people got used to them, there was no going back, and soon, few wanted to buy a car without this kind of smartphone integration. Even so, carmakers continue to offer navigation systems, and they still want to spend billions on developing new software.

I remember when I first test drove the Mercedes-Benz A-Class with the new MBUX interface back in 2018. The huge screens and the beautiful interface were pretty much rendered useless by the poorly designed human-machine interface. It was basically impossible to make the car navigate to the hotel where we were staying using voice commands.

I was puzzled back then why Mercedes-Benz wanted to develop their voice command system in-house, instead of using Google’s or Apple’s. When asked, the company’s representatives boasted that their system is way better and available in more languages. I begged to disagree, following my experience with the system. Google spent the past decades honing its voice command system, and a company with very little software expertise can’t topple that.

And yet, carmakers consistently fail to recognize this. Their struggle is not about giving people a better choice, but about keeping control. Using a car generates a lot of data that can be harvested for profit, and giving this up to Google or Apple is not what carmakers want. It is the main reason why Toyota refused to offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay until very recently, in 2018. BMW even wanted people to pay for using Apple CarPlay, although this move backfired on them.

In 2014, another Daimler brand launched a tiny little car named smart. It came with one tiny little feature that struck me as a genius move. The base version of the car had no dash screen whatsoever, just a smartphone holder. You just needed to put your smartphone in there, install the smart app, and voila, you had your dash screen with access to all the car’s functions, radio, and everything. Can’t do better than that, and you can save a lot of money in the process.

The tides are turning though, and we see that big carmakers reach out to software companies for help. The GMC Hummer EV will use Android Automotive OS to power the infotainment system, with all the goodies that come with it. Volvo also uses Google’s operating system in its Recharge range of vehicles, and Ford announced the same for its vehicles coming to market next year.

This is almost mandatory for electric vehicles, as the navigation system needs access to vehicle data to estimate the range and to program the next charge stop into the navigation. Hopefully, carmakers will learn and leave the heavy lifting to software companies, for the benefit of their customers. Because nobody cares about the in-car navigation system today.


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