By Andrew Zaleski
FORTUNE -- When the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is unveiled this fall, making its proper debut with it will be Apple's CarPlay, an in-car technology system that will mimic the smartphone interface -- including the touch-screen, if present -- that legions of people carry in their pockets every day.
Apple's (AAPL) entry into the world of automobiles is noteworthy for several reasons. The company enters markets deliberately and ruthlessly, for one, rarely doing so without readjusting the playing field. The automotive industry is large and lucrative, dominated by players so established that some predate the sinking of the Titanic. And above all, the application of consumer technology to the automotive industry has been sorely and frustratingly lacking in terms of the experience to which drivers and passengers are subject. As consumers marvel at the phone's simplicity in summoning driving directions or responding to a friend's message, they scowl at the car's complexity in doing the same. Something is surely lost in translation with the addition of 3,000 lbs. of steel in motion.
It's not for lack of trying. General Motors (GM) introduced its MyLink telematics system in its 2012 models; Ford (F) rolled out its MyFordTouch system the year prior and its Sync system in 2007, the same year that the iPhone was introduced. Audi has its Connect system. Toyota (TM) has its Entune. Kia has its Microsoft-powered Uvo (MSFT) and big brother Hyundai its Blue Link.
What none of these carmakers seem to have is fans of their in-car technology. The systems are complex, a nest of hardware buttons and interface flows that confound even the savviest of smartphone users. They can be imperfect in their relative infancy, challenging the patience of drivers who know better than to look away from the road. And they add a new dynamic -- does a software update warrant a dealer visit? -- to the relatively straightforward driving experience.
"It's not optimal," says Thilo Koslowski, a Gartner analyst who studies in-car technology. "It hasn't really captured the experience that it should look like."
Part of this has to do with the engineering cycle of cars, says Mark Scalf, the OnStar engineering group manager for developer products and applications at General Motors. The technology available in cars today was finished in production three to five years ago, he says. That means that engineers today are "wrapping up specifications and designs" for technology in vehicles scheduled to hit showrooms in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Not that frustration with these systems is derived solely from their age.
"The level of integration we have right now is rather primitive," says Phil Abram, chief infotainment officer for GM's Global Connected Customer Group. "The rest of the technology is getting to the point where it's ready to be integrated into a car. That's on Apple and Google and ... the [wireless] carriers to bring forth systems and standards that make sense. We're just entering that phase right now."
In other words, it isn't so much that in-car technology systems are especially complicated; they just haven't captured what a technology experience for a driver ought to look like because engineers and drivers alike are still learning what that experience should be. Gartner's Koslowski partly attributes the unwieldy experience of today's in-car tech to automakers' misunderstandings of what consumers want.
"[In-car technology] should be for consumers to extend their digital lifestyle into an automobile," he says. "Car companies are not understanding this digital world really well."
That starts with the assumption that drivers want to give up their smartphones in the first place. In practice, drivers seem to care less about embedded technology that replicates their phone or tablet's functionality -- multiple screens, voice-activated controls, all manner of connectivity -- and more about whether their current digital habits remain intact once they get behind the wheel. A 2013 study of emerging technologies in the auto industry conducted by J.D. Power identified that more than 80% of drivers "cite pre-purchase interest in an in-vehicle device/app link that would connect their smartphone to their vehicle's infotainment system." In other words, they see the vehicle as another node in their personal digital network -- if it connects to extend that network, great; if not, too bad.
The distinction is important as car companies begin to compete on technology, not just gas mileage or cup-holders.
"Car companies finally realized that this type of stuff is differentiating," says Scalf, who joined GM a year ago after working as an app developer in southern California. "It is something that customers value in their new car purchase decision. And they need to plan for this -- they need to treat this technology as a platform as opposed to a single-purpose device."
Which means that the new wave of in-car technology must, according to Scalf, be focused more on software than hardware. Imagine an in-car tech platform that is fully compatible with whatever mobile operating system and apps a driver already uses on other connected devices.
There are signs of progress: GM's CES announcement that the 2015 line of OnStar-equipped Chevrolet vehicles will have 4G LTE connectivity is significant because it means that the connected car can handle the same types of services popular on a smartphone or tablet. This is what makes the introduction of Apple's CarPlay important. This is why the 2014 creation of an Open Automotive Alliance -- with Audi, GM, Honda (HMC), and Hyundai as members -- to make Google's Android (GOOG) operating system a common platform for in-car infotainment systems is important.
"You can't take just a mobile app experience and cut and copy that exact experience into the automotive context," Scalf says. "Because I'm driving ... the user experience really needs to be different. [We're] trying to get developers to think of automotive as a different experience, as a way to extend your brand and your product experience into the car in a very different way."
The core purpose of a car -- to shuttle a passenger from point A to B -- remains intact. But how does technology improve that trip?
"Nobody has cracked the code completely," Koslowski says.
It's too early to determine how these tech alliances will add up. For example, though GM is a founding member of the OAA, it is also looking into incorporating Apple's CarPlay in future Chevrolet models, Abram says.
But all automakers have their sights set on a new wave of customers -- and perhaps the potential to be as cool to the connected generation as they were to their grandparents in the 1950s.
"I believe that the car companies will get to the point that the automobile will become the coolest device you can think of," Koslowski says. "Cooler than a smartphone. More innovative than a tablet. Because of all the real estate in the car."
A new generation of consumers cares much more about megabytes of storage and clock speeds than horsepower or torque.
By Doron Levin
FORTUNE -- Can the iPhone help automakers sell cars? Or will cars help Apple sell more gadgets?
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The new MyFord touch system's best function may be as a warning to other car manufacturers of how not to go about innovating when it comes to high-tech dashboards.
Earlier this week, Consumer Reports panned the MyFord Touch system, an optional touch-based user interface featured in revamped models like the Ford Edge and standard in the company's higher-end Limited models. In "Ford's frustrating high-tech controls," the publication takes the carmaker to MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Jan 5, 2011 2:39 PM ET
Every day, the Fortune staff spends hours poring over tech stories, posts, and reviews from all over the Web to keep tabs on the companies that matter. We've assembled the day's most newsworthy bits below.Those of you jonesing to get the latest tech news as it happens can sign up for the "Today in Tech" newsletter. So get to it!
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The Ford chairman has a surprising side project: funding ideas that could ease car congestion.
A few years ago the CEO of Ford Motor, Bill Ford, began pushing the company to be more sensitive to the environment. The result: The automaker today produces five different hybrid models that help reduce gas consumption and pollution. Now Ford, currently executive chairman of the car company, has turned his attention to another byproduct of MOREMichael V. Copeland, Senior Writer - Jun 28, 2010 3:00 AM ET
The Google vs. Microsoft war might heat up with GM's discussions to develop in-car telematics with Google.
A recent CNNMoney article revealed that GM was working with a mysterious partner on its OnStar systems for the new Chevy Volt and eventually across its product lines.
This year's OnStar relaunch involves a major technology push inside GM as well a partnership with a major outside technology company, said Preuss, who declined to reveal MORESeth Weintraub - May 12, 2010 11:12 AM ET
In the age of global enterprise software, US carmakers are re-learning the secrets of efficiency
By Fred Thomas, Industry Director, Apriso
After the government provided a $17.4 billion lifeline to two of the largest US automakers last year, most Americans still thought that the big Detroit three – GM, Chrysler and Ford – were down for the count.
Over the last few decades, we've seen domestic car sales from American companies slide from MOREApr 5, 2010 1:53 PM ET
Every new car is basically a computer. So where are all the cool apps?
In my rusted jalopy, a 1991 Volvo 240 sedan, I have installed the future.
A car that stalls at every stop sign now has turn-by-turn navigation. I can check my e-mail and monitor the stock market (or, let's be honest, the day's surf). There are applications at my fingertips that can point my sputtering car toward a burrito MOREOct 16, 2009 7:56 AM ET
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