General Motors is the pioneer, Ford the innovator and Chrysler the sleeper dark horse in the battle for the best infotainment system among domestic automakers.
Detroit's automakers have followed three distinct paths to allow drivers to play their music, get directions, make calls and stay constantly connected while behind the wheel. All have bugs. All have advantages and disadvantages. Each carmaker is determined to provide the best system to differentiate themselves and sell more vehicles.
"If you ignore connectivity, you'll go out of business," said Mike Hichme, GM senior manager for advanced infotainment and design. A large screen and Bluetooth are essentials. "(About) 70 per cent of customers want a form of connectivity. No one can afford to take a pass."
Less than 10 per cent of vehicles globally have GPS chips and cellular technology embedded right into their cars to transform them into a phone on wheels. But that penetration should double by 2015 and continue to grow to 50 per cent, said Francesca Forestieri, a connected vehicle expert with the GSM Association, an international trade organization of mobile operators.
"By 2025, it's clear all cars will be connected in multiple manners," she said. The trend now is to offer different options, she said, from embedded computer chips to the ability to tap into smartphones seamlessly.
Detroit's automakers have tackled the problem from different angles, resulting in unique solutions.
GM's OnStar, developed in 1996, is the granddaddy of the field, known as telematics. But Ford's original Sync system was deemed so revolutionary that in 2007 it eclipsed GM as the technology leader, causing great angst in the OnStar offices.
But Ford, buoyed by Sync's success, pushed too far too fast in designing its successor, MyFord Touch, which replaced buttons and knobs with a touch screen and multiple menus for simple functions. The combination of bugs with the system and consumer complaints about its complexity put a black mark on Ford's overall quality record. Ford has addressed many of the bugs and continues to update the software to make the system easier to use.
Chrysler's Uconnect adopts aspects of OnStar and Sync, earning it praise among buyers and critics after years of being a relative unknown for its efforts in this area.
GM's OnStar was introduced as a subscription service offering safety and concierge services. You pushed the OnStar button to connect to a call centre where agents knew your location from GPS chips and the cellular technology made the vehicle act like a built-in phone. The car could even call emergency vehicles if airbags deployed in an accident and the driver was unable to make the call.
GM later augmented OnStar by adding the ability to sync the driver's smartphone to its vehicles for hands-free access as another way to be connected.
GM has announced plans to introduce 4G broadband speed in a bid to regain leadership. Offering 4G through the car would bypass the need to sync a smartphone and allow drivers to retrieve voice mail and text messages through the car. Having 4G could turn the car into a Wi-Fi hot spot, allowing passengers to access the Internet with other computing devices.
Today, each GM brand has a customized infotainment system with different names, prices and degrees of sophistication.
Chevrolet has the low-cost MyLink system that relies on Bluetooth to access online content by smartphone. Buick and GMC call their similar system Intellilink.
The Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, is a high-end system delivered through a black-and-chrome touch screen with no conventional buttons or knobs.
Hichme and Stuart Norris dreamed up CUE in 2008 to tout Cadillac's technological prowess, simplify cockpits that were a sea of buttons and standardize audio systems for a lineup where no two models had the same radio. CUE has natural voice recognition and presets that can be used for music, contacts or directions.
The sleek system debuted on the XTS a year ago and continues to roll out across the lineup, including the new ATS and the SRX.
CUE, like MyFord Touch, drew criticism from Consumer Reports, which found its touch screen hard to use while driving.
Hichme anticipated criticism for not having traditional buttons. But that is different from early knocks against MyFord Touch when "50 per cent of issues were bugs, not dissatisfaction with the system," Hichme said. "None of us are immune to that (software issues)."
Aaron Bragman of Cars.com said configuring CUE like an iPod should catch on, but GM still has to fix some bugs and the lack of buttons is generating complaints.
Dave Sullivan, analyst with AutoPacific, has encountered problems with CUE. "When something doesn't work you get frustrated and then distracted, which is not OK in a car."
Ford's MyFord Touch system has had the roughest go of the three technologies.
Instead of embedded computer chips in the car, Ford's original Sync system, developed with Microsoft, made the car an extension of the driver's smartphone. Constant software updates would make it possible to keep up with ever-advancing mobile technology every Ford vehicle could operate.
Sync was a mammoth success and made Ford an instant technology leader.
But the next-generation MyFord Touch -- which centred on a new touch-screen technology made popular by Apple products -- was glitchy and hard to operate. Drivers said the loss of dials and knobs made it dangerous to operate while driving.
The complaints caused Ford's overall quality scores to plummet and it could be a couple of years before they rebound, said Dave Sargent of J.D. Power and Associates, which measures vehicle quality based on consumer surveys.
Ford has extended warranties and offered several rounds of software patches with another coming this summer. And two years ago, Ford started restoring buttons and this will continue as each model is redesigned in the years ahead. Similar moves are underway with MyLincoln Touch, which is the most sophisticated version of the system for the luxury brand.
"I think we're in good shape with changes made to MyFord Touch," Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of the Americas, said recently.
The system is in 80 per cent of Ford vehicles, compared with competitors who offer sophisticated systems on less than half their lineup, Hinrichs said. The math means Ford will get more complaints, but he expects it to level off as the competition expands its use of similar technology.
"Our goal is to continue to be the leader in the technology," Hinrichs said.
Sargent of J.D. Power agrees Ford took a chance in being first but that will pay off down the road as the automaker also was able to get the jump on working out bugs and addressing consumer concerns.
"We have cut our 'things-gone-wrong' by half," said Raj Nair, Ford's head of product development.
Chrysler is skirting similar criticism with its Uconnect system, which incorporates the best aspects of a number of other systems.
Uconnect is a hybrid of embedded cellular technology and subscription services as well as the ability to sync a smartphone. Uconnect also introduced a 3G broadband modem to make the vehicle an Internet hot spot other computing devices can tap into.
A driver can choose to subscribe to a service, much like GM's OnStar, and use the car's built-in phone. Or a driver can choose to sync their own smartphone through the car's infotainment system and use it to make calls and access music and the Internet.
"Some like the simplicity of not using (their own) phone. It works when the ignition is on. Others say their whole life is on their phone and they want to link it to their car," said Marios Zenios, who heads Chrysler's Uconnect team.
Zenios joined Chrysler in 2008 from Motorola, which pioneered the original flip cellphone that connected with a car's GPS. When he arrived, Chrysler was working on a new system with a big screen and grappling with key decisions. Should the system be embedded or phone-based -- in other words, OnStar or Sync in nature?
"We thought it would restrain customers if we picked one or the other," he said. "So we ended up with both."
That led to the second decision: How advanced should it be?
Uconnect strikes a compromise. There are mechanical controls as well as the 8.4-inch touch screen. The new Ram and Viper have an embedded 3G modem that makes them a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Meanwhile, Chrysler's strategy is: "Let the consumer decide when to migrate from mechanical controls to touch screen," Zenios said. So Chrysler offers eight ways to deliver music and three ways to control climate.
"Technology to us is an enabler. Not an end game," he said.
Analyst Sullivan loves it. "It has large buttons, has fast response rates and just works. It is simple and does what it is intended to do."
Michael Noblett, with IBM global business development, said infotainment systems are a must.
"If a customer goes on a test drive, and there isn't a sophisticated system, they notice," he said.
Everyone is experimenting with how to leverage the technology, Noblett said. "I don't know who's got it right, but it's great that they are all working on it."
-- Detroit Free Press