Never Stop Driving #49: The Screen War

Car companies are struggling to become software companies. Volkswagen just replaced the chief of Cariad, its digital division, after software glitches and delays postponed the introduction of new car models.

VW established Cariad in 2020 with a mission to “transform cars into software-defined vehicles.” The company and its brands—VW, Porsche, Bentley, and others—build some nine million cars a year so there are significant potential cost savings if they all share a common operating system.

Software services are a golden carrot for car executives. Making cars is a notoriously tough, low-margin business. Serving every new customer means making another four-wheeled machine of steel, aluminum, rubber, and plastic. Digital products, however, scale effortlessly as there’s almost zero cost for, say, Spotify to add a new subscriber to its music service.

2023 Volkswagen ID.4 interior Cosmic center screen

Tesla, which Wall Street values six times higher than VW, already offers monthly subscriptions. The EV manufacturer’s driver aid software, inaccurately named Full Self Driving, costs either $99 or $199 per month depending on capability. In the U.K., BMW offers subscriptions for heated seats. Ford CEO Jim Farley envisions a variety of digital services around electric work vehicles like the F-150 Lightning. Car-based subscriptions will only grow from here.

If you consider the software that runs modern fuel-injection systems, which rarely fail and don’t need reboots, you might presume that car companies are already supremely adept at software. Alas, even today’s engine management systems are ridiculously primitive compared with the computing power of a smartphone. The software-and-user-experience struggle kicked off more than two decades ago when automakers started packaging in-car navigation systems with more music options and other features. How could a driver—already tasked with an important job—operate it all?

They couldn’t. So-called infotainment systems were by and large a disaster. Remember BMW’s iDrive? Or the Lexus mouse and touchscreen? Ford realized voice activation was needed to avoid driver distraction but the technology wasn’t ready and its Sync feature often stumbled. Even today, these systems can make or break a car. While most of us are huge Volkswagen GTI fans because of how they drive, my colleague Jason Cammisa pointed out that the new user interface in the eighth-generation GTI is such a confusing mess, he would not buy the car based on that failure alone.

My sources inside the automotive industry tell me the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in-car phone-mirroring systems are a two-edged sword. Yeah, consumers want them, but phone manufacturers and cellular service providers are the only companies making money off this essential service. That’s one reason General Motors announced that it will stop offering CarPlay and Android Auto in future EVs. Executives often say that car companies can deliver a better in-car experience. Sure. The real reason, of course, is money, from the data and the subscriptions.

GM’s decision makes sense, but to harvest that potential revenue, it and other car companies must become software and user experience ninjas. As we’ve seen with VW, that’s a herculean challenge. Ford, for example, is currently rehabbing a part of old Detroit to make an urban campus it hopes will attract the new tech talent it needs (we published a terrific piece on all the major Motown auto sites under development). Ford’s got work to do: I found the touchscreen system in the Mustang Mach-E to be much less intuitive than the one in a Tesla. Then again, another reviewer said the opposite. Interestingly, Ford CEO Jim Farley recently explained that the Dearborn company’s software strategy does not include kicking out CarPlay or Android Auto. “Our philosophy is we’re going to make the best Android, CarPlay experience you can imagine,” Farley said.

2022 mercedes amg eqs hyperscreen
Eric Weiner

Like everything, tech is a mixed bag. Software and computers can increase productivity. From my chair, I’ve watched the number of people required to produce a magazine drop by two-thirds. Some 25 people were on the staff of Car and Driver when I started there in 1995 and now we produce the same number of pages per year in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine with only eight staffers. That’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison because C/D tests every new car, which we don’t do, but digital tools have unquestionably provided huge productivity gains in publishing.

Publishing companies, however, didn’t reduce their total workforce. Positions once needed to make magazines simply shifted over to IT, where technical, software-oriented positions often require salaries far higher than editors. So jobs shifted from one department to a different, costlier one. Does the company win? Car companies are struggling with this too as they still need to make cars. They need that subscription revenue.

Tech and the internet promised huge digital audiences and many print publishers obliged with websites and videos, but the expected revenue from larger digital audiences never arrived, so the overall quality of media declined in the race for cheap clicks. Then social media hoovered the lion’s share of the attention and advertising revenue. Publishing companies got disrupted by tech, which was disrupted by social. A new book called Traffic explains it all in greater detail. It was written by the former editor of Buzzfeed News, which recently shut down.

Here at Hagerty, we strive to produce high-quality media that doesn’t chase empty clicks, and we offer most of it for free via our website, YouTube channel, newsletters, and more. Why? Because we believe our digital media platforms help us to spread car love. As the person in charge of it all, I can tell you that our efforts are not free to produce so if you’d like to help, please consider signing up for the Hagerty Drivers Club, which now offers a free, 60-day trial. Or bring in a new member. All of us at Hagerty Media would be grateful.

Have a great weekend!

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    I can tell you that while I’m not a huge fan of “all things digital” in general (especially multifunctional touchscreens in dash panels), I certainly DO appreciate the digital offerings I find here at! At the same time, as a guy who made a fairly good living for several decades in the printing biz, I absolutely love when my Driver’s Club magazine (likely printed on a digital press) arrives and I can relax in my easy chair with a cuppa java and revel in the fine photography (likely taken with a digital camera) and read the interesting copy (likely composed on a digital keyboard)!
    Larry, thanks to you and ALL of the great staff who make both of those platforms available to me (all included in my insurance bill) – I get entertainment, education, and sometimes even enlightenment from all of you, whether on a screen or on the printed page, and I REALLY appreciate it all!

    Dropping Android Auto and Apple Carplay is a huge mistake. Consumers do not want to give that up, and they will buy cars that offer it. You can’t sell subscriptions to people who don’t own your cars.

    Oh great, the car company will upgrade your car and you will have to learn how to run it again. The car company will make a deal with a gas company and your car will only run on that gas company’s gas. Then after 2 or 3 years the car company won’t support the software anymore and you will have to buy a new car.

    That’s fine. Every new car will only be had through a lease or subscription, so when your software threatens to brick itself the day after your lease is set to expire, hey presto! new car time… /sarcasm

    I work in tech and our products all have an “end of technical support” date. Wondering how long it is until new cars have similarly aggressive parameters…

    The problem is the misapplication of paradigms. Cars are high reliability, and high serviceability. In general they would not be considered a high availability system. Your phones are high availability, and only somewhat reliable and serviceable. Think about how often you have to reboot your phone and don’t even think about it, but you scream at your car when the bluetooth doesn’t connect as fast as you want it to. It never seems to be the phones fault. i do it too. Think about how often you get a software update from Apple. How often does your car? Car maker’s software domain has been on the embedded side keeping your car ultra-reliable. If the interface to that system is being done by software people with no appreciation for that part of the system, it will always be a kludge. VW’s OS idea is super. I bet they hired a bunch of high level people, and didn’t raise up the people responsible for all their low level vehicle systems.

    The car companies have largely lost their way. They have forgotten Rule #1 which is to serve their customers! They will most likely go bankrupt if they continue down their “Subscription” path. I have had ZERO luck in my efforts to get my Porsche Navigation system software fixed. This is on a $125,000 car. Instead of giving customers what they want they cater to chasing profit in small repetitive bites of the customer’s wallets, and in following the whims of government bureaucracies. If ever there was a recipe for disaster, This is it. I love to drive, and am a Drivers Club member. Cheers, and keep doing what you do.

    Thanks Peter. I think software is a challenge for every company. I was at a Walgreen’s and the check-out clerk was trying to help a customer trouble shoot the Walgreen’s app. That sounds bad, but the customer mentioned how much he liked the app because he could renew his prescriptions easily.

    Car companies would go bankrupt… *if they only sold cars to folks like us.*
    I sold new Acuras for 7 months after grad school in 2017 (couldn’t stand it any longer than that.) Our biggest selling points: the tech. Our second-biggest selling points: lease deals. Tech in cars will go the way of warranties – set to expire or become largely inconvenient right around the time a lease deal hits its end. For guys/girls like us HDC’ers, I’ll trade “convenience” for durable technology (I do love fuel injection and ABS.) But for the huge majority of car owners, actually owning and operating a car is a massive inconvenience, so manufacturers have to assuage that inconvenience any way they can that makes a dollar. The great irony here being that as we find new cars less and less attractive due to the infiltration of persistent tech (in the pursuit of “convenience”) the more attractive normies will find these same new cars.

    I will just say to this; Having now owned a Tesla model Y for 8 months, which shares garage space with an also new Ford Pickup, and having owned a number of cars, several new Porsches among them, in my opinion, there is only one company that know how to do infotainment, voice command, and navigation software. TESLA. It makes all others look just plain laughable. Windshield fogs up suddenly, say – defog windshield, and it happens. Just ask, it never misses. Same goes for the NAV. I swear I could take a disbeliever in showing them how good it is, lay ten $100 bills on the dash and give them 10 tries to stump the system by asking through voice command, for directions to any address, business name, etc. and the disbeliever wouldn’t get one of those $100 bills. Do the same in the new Ford pickup and I’d be $1000 in the hole as fast as they could get through each agonizing attempt. Set off on you route too, and decide you want to make a change to that set route, and the Tesla pretty instantly knows exactly what you have up you sleeve and alters the route, where the other will ask you a zillion time to make a U-turn or other such silliness. It’s masterful!

    Agreed re: Tesla being way ahead.
    That said, the major weakness I’ve seen on most voice command systems is people where English is not their first language…the voice command systems are very frustrating for users with a moderate to heavy accent.

    I am one of those customers that would not buy a car based solely on annoying tech.
    All I need (want) is bluetooth to stream music…the screen on my phone (with a phone holder) is more than adequate for maps/directions. If it were up to me, cars would come with standard-single or double-din radios that could be easily swapped out to fit the owner’s preferences.
    I hate to say “never”, but I cannot envision myself ever paying a subscription for in-car features, so long as there’s a choice.
    I had satellite radio in one of my cars for about 7 years…no subscription…Sirius just never turned off the trial…I used it while it was available, but am perfectly fine without it. I’ve also had 2 Lexus…bought for the reliability, not the tech…liked both cars overall, but I hated EVERY moment dealing with their infotainment/screen, and this alone has prevented me from buying a 3rd Lexus.

    Why GM thinks people want to set up another set of apps and subscriptions, potentially with apps not as good or trusted as the ones on a customer’s phone, I’ll never know. They have yet to prove they are capable of providing a system people would prefer. And what’s wrong with allowing for the choice to switch back and forth? I have a couple of cars that I use the built-in nav over my phone, but that’s because it seems to be better and takes advantage of features on the car, like heads-up displays or augmented reality, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t use my phone for some functions. IF GM can get its act together and build a superior system, then people will use it even if phone projection is still there. But I wouldn’t bet money on it (like GM has).

    I do like my tech, and I do like my cars, but combining them is definitely a work in progress.

    What I don’t understand is why car makers are trying to reinvent the wheel. If I were them I’d write two apps, one for IOS and one for Android. It would control the car-specific stuff, ideally in combination. with some physical sliders/buttons/switches strategically located in the car. Add a proper phone mount, perhaps an interface with the phone to increase its screen size. (I suspect the latter will become moot as folding phones come down in price and up in reliability.)

    I already have most of what is needed to run a car’s infotainment system in my pocket when I get in the car. Leverage that. Simplify and add apps (with apologies to a certain Mr. Chapman)!

    you are incorrect about BMW iDrive. Yes in the beginning it did have some initial growing pains, but BMW still uses iDrive and it’s a great system

    Oh, that’s great to hear. I sometimes wonder about infotainment systems getting easier if you own the car for a while.

    Hi Larry I think if you were to offer The Drivers Club in Canada, you might increase revenue. I’m sure I’m not the only Canadian that wants a subscription, but they are not available up here.

    I have a 2015 BMW M3, and most of all of its quite expensive iDrive features such as navigation, gps, traffic data, online services, search etc. are now worthless because the car uses an obsolete 2G/3G cellular services to get its data, so BMW discontinued online services with no no ability to upgrade. So it is a pretty worthless screen.

    Putting aside the fact that Waze, Apple Maps, Google Maps were always better than BMW’s navigation app, if BMW allowed use of CarPlay, which was not an option at that time, I would still have a working screen with access to navigation apps, traffic data, business searching, etc. because the cellular data (and better computing power) would be provided by my always upgradable phone and carrier.

    FWIW: Porsche replaced under Recall the 3G module in my ’16 PanameraS e-hybrid, out of warranty this year. At first I was told that I could not access my charging management (timer, cabin conditioning App) without the Subscription Service for all the other stiff I never use. Even Porsche confirmed this despite me telling them that I didn’t need Porsche to tell me where to find a pizza.

    Once I had the module installed and programmed with the original factory code, (Which 800-Porsche USA had to reset into new module), presto, my upgraded App and 4G module now give me access to my factory-INSTALLED hybrid plug-in software. Lucky for both of us, because I was considering suing them for discontinued access to already paid-for and installed software.

    There seems to be a fine line between where tech helps advance the experience of driving, (the internal systems that create greater mechanical reliability being one as you describe), and where it begins to interfere with that driving experience, (poor interfaces, too much time away from critical driving related inputs, and other nuisance distractions). A fine line to be sure, but one I feel that if you keep the driving experience as priority one, the rest should be easier to evaluate.

    And Digi Diagnostics are not free…
    About a year ago, I got a Check Engine Light signal and also noticed the AC was blowing warm air. I brought it in to my dealer and $500 later was advised by the Service Writer that he “only charged me about 1.5 hours for diagnostics, even though the PanameraS e-hybrid diagnosis is very complex.”
    So I called the Service Manager to “thank him” for fixing my AC and wondered out loud why I was charged for the diagnosis that I had reported myself. He assured me that it really wasn’t that much diagnosis, as the AC recharge was $450 anyway.

    Brilliant newsletter this week. Having a 50+ year career in the automotive industry, I’ve experienced the tremendous change and quality improvements made over the years. I agree with Jason that a manufacturer’s “infotainment” can make or break a car.

    Any chance of getting Patrick Bedard to write a few articles?

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