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Apple seeks to take bite out of auto industry

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Apple's iOS 7 software will be integrated into models made by several companies.

SIMON DAWSON / BLOOMBERG NEWS Enlarge Image

Apple's iOS 7 software will be integrated into models made by several companies.

LOS ANGELES -- While Steve Jobs regretted not making an iCar, Apple for years was ambivalent about the auto industry. Now it's vying for dashboard space held by Microsoft, BlackBerry and Pandora Media.

By year's end, car buyers will be able to choose from several vehicles that incorporate Apple's iPhone functions, using Siri voice controls for navigation, texting, emails and music. Displacing competitors in the car may be more difficult than in desktop computing or mobile phones, as the tech giant grapples with challenges including extreme temperatures and noisy cabins.

"It's impossible to overestimate the difficulty of integrating an outside software system well into a vehicle," said Eric Noble, president of industry consultant Car Lab. "Silicon Valley routinely fails to recognize this."

Apple wants to gain traction as automakers struggle to balance customer demands with safety concerns. BlackBerry's QNX Software Systems and Microsoft are the main suppliers of automotive operating system software according to researcher IHS iSuppli, while Pandora is the top in-car music-streaming service.

Knowing many consumers already use iPhones as cheap substitutes for built-in navigation systems, automakers are working to incorporate Apple's technology to minimize driver distraction and increase customer satisfaction. Apple's Siri is already built into General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Spark and Sonic small cars, where it has garnered less-than-rave reviews.

Those models use Apple's iOS 6 operating system in the dashboard head unit -- the core of the car's stereo -- eliminating the need for separate navigation devices.

It isn't completely satisfying, said Ron Montoya, the consumer-advice editor for Edmunds.com, an automotive data service in California, who's tested the Siri-enabled system in the Spark.

"It works well enough for some things, but I personally think Siri doesn't work that well," Montoya said. "It frequently doesn't recognize my voice."

The Apple-enabled system in GM's subcompacts wasn't as useful for navigation as systems automakers already offer, Montoya said.

"Siri has not been designed for the car, where the cabin is often noisy," said Chris Schreiner, a research director for consultant Strategy Analytics Inc. and a former engineer for GM's OnStar telematics service. "Automakers tune voice systems for each car. Expecting Siri to work at the same level in every vehicle isn't practical."

Next, Apple's iOS 7 software will be fully integrated into models made by GM, Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., Apple said last month. Icons familiar on iPhones and iPads will migrate to the centre console screen in cars.

"It's something that people want, and I think that Apple can do this in a unique way and better than anyone else," CEO Tim Cook said in a July 23 conference call. "It's a key focus for us."

Apple announced plans for Siri Eyes Free capability two years ago, and cars with that option are arriving now. That suggests to Montoya the more elaborate integration steps Apple discussed in June won't appear until 2015, he said.

Honda, Hyundai, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Jaguar, Volkswagen AG's Audi, Toyota Motor Corp. and the Chrysler Group LLC are also adding Siri Eyes Free capability this year.

While Jobs, who died in 2011, was cool to the industry, he was passionate about cars. Mickey Drexler, an Apple board member and chief executive officer of apparel company J. Crew Group Inc., last year said Jobs had wanted to try his hand at designing a car and regretted not doing so.

 

-- Bloomberg News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2013 B7

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