Can't My Car and My iPod Just Get Along?

Automakers That Make It Easier To Plug in Will Win


  • iPod Integration Kit

    iPod Integration Kit

    The $500 iPod integration option in the 2008 BMW 328xi requires a cable to connect the device to the USB slot and the aux-in jack. | March 18, 2010

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You just dropped big bucks on a new computer, and then splurged on a high-end printer to hook up to it — only to find out that not all of the printer's functions work with your new machine. And when you go back to the store that sold you the computer, you're told you'll have to upgrade to next year's model to take full advantage of the printer's features.

Seems like an absurd way to do business and design products — and a great way to anger customers. But it's happening to car owners who want to link their portable electronics to their vehicles as automakers play catch-up with the rapid pace of consumer electronics. "If you design an interface for a device, and the interface in the vehicle is two or three years behind, it's an opportunity to disappoint," says Jaron Rothkop, director of automotive product solutions for J.D. Power and Associates.

Exercise in Frustration

While the scenario described above can certainly happen if you're not careful when shopping for computers and other electronics, it's more likely to occur when buying a new car that promises a dedicated iPod connection — whether it's a $20,000 economy car or a $200,000-plus super-luxury coupe. Just ask the owner of a 2008 Bentley Continental GT Speed we spoke to for this article.

Before purchasing the car, the owner read on Bentley's Web site and was told by the dealer that by adding an optional iPod-integration kit he could simply connect an iPod to a cable in the glovebox and control the device using the car's radio and steering wheel buttons. But after taking delivery on the car, he found he was only able to access five of his 50-plus playlists at a time, and he had to click through the thousands of tracks on his iPod one by one to access a specific song. Plus, the controls of the device are disabled when it's connected to the car and the iPod doesn't charge, so its battery eventually dies.

"I've resorted to the ridiculous routine of reaching into the glovebox, disconnecting the iPod from the Bentley system, navigating to the desired music and then reconnecting it," the owner reports. And when he leaves the car he has to make sure to disconnect the iPod or its battery dies. "All this turns what should be an enjoyable driving experience into an exercise in frustration," he adds. To make matters worse, he learned that the 2009 Bentley will have full iPod integration — after having been assured prior to his purchase that no updates were slated. "After waiting several years to make the purchase," he says, "I would have happily waited until 2009."

Bentley isn't alone in offering clunky iPod-integration solutions. We've experienced similar frustrations in vehicles by Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes, and forums on Web sites such as ilounge.com are filled with users complaining about automakers' lackluster iPod-integration solutions. While recently testing a 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman with a $500 iPod-integration option, for example, it took more than 10 minutes to scroll through artists from A to L to get to a specific White Stripes song on an iPod — until we finally gave up after reaching our destination. And in a 2008 BMW 328xi, also with a $500 iPod-integration option, we were baffled to find that a cable is required to hook an iPod to both the USB slot and the aux jack in the center console. (Most such systems only use the USB port.) This is particularly bizarre since BMW, which also owns Mini, was the first carmaker to offer iPod integration starting in September of 2004. You'd think they'd have it down by now.

But at least BMW and others have been proactive in iPod integration. GM only last year introduced its Personal Audio Link adapter for a limited number of Chevy, Pontiac and Saturn models, with plans to extend it to other GM vehicles by this summer.

Integration Defined

It's not an overstatement to say that the iPod has revolutionized the way people access music in the car, and after mobile phones, it's the most popular portable device brought into vehicles. In the same way handheld phones have made "car phones" archaic, the iPod has practically killed the CD changer and is slowly making the in-dash CD player obsolete. Yet automakers were slow to respond to the iPod phenomenon and have had to play catch-up. While Apple lists 34 carmakers on its Web site that offer what it terms "seamless integration between your car and your iPod," this integration varies from full control of the device to generic auxiliary inputs to low-fidelity FM modulators that route it through the radio.

Ironically, the most sophisticated iPod integration application yet comes from Apple archrival Microsoft, which created Ford's Sync system. Sync became available only last fall, but has since transformed the way drivers interact with MP3 players like the iPod, as well as mobile phones. The system — which is standard on many Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles and a $395 option on others — not only allows full access to tunes on an iPod by artist, album, song, playlist, genre and more, but it does so using effective voice activation.

Perhaps the most significant element of Sync is that, because the system is largely software based, it can be easily upgraded through its USB connection. For an auto industry constrained by multiyear product-development cycles, this ability to stay in stride with consumer electronics trends is groundbreaking. And with Microsoft recently inking a deal with Hyundai-Kia to provide similar technology and its exclusivity arrangement with Ford ending in November of 2008, expect Sync-like functions to migrate to other vehicles soon.

Tech Makes the Difference

While some hard-core auto enthusiasts may bemoan the encroachment of technology into the car's cockpit, more and more consumers are basing their vehicle purchases on electronic amenities. In a survey of 1,200-plus people conducted by Lexus, more than half of the respondents said having the latest tech onboard is extremely important. And with fuel economy, performance and other factors that once separated vehicles within a given segment at near parity, tech often tips the scales in an automaker's favor. "In a market with a commoditized product like the automotive industry, anything that enhances the ownership experience makes a big difference," says Thilo Koslowski, an analyst who follows car electronics for the technology research firm Gartner.

Demand to stay connected and entertained is expected to accelerate as drivers increasingly carry their portables into the car. According to J.D. Power and Associates' U.S. Automotive Emerging Technology Report, half of all car owners use some form of digital music player in their vehicles, and more than 95 percent of new vehicle purchasers own a portable device, including a mobile phone or navigation system. "It has expanded to the point where that number represents even the compact and inexpensive vehicle segments," says JDPA's Rothkop. "And the penetration of these products has increased among all car buyers, not just younger and luxury buyers."

While tech-savvy Gen-Y car buyers have been largely credited with boosting retail sales of the Sync-equipped Ford Focus in April to a staggering 88 percent over the previous year, Koslowski and Rothkop point out that the appeal of car tech cuts across generations. "Ultimately, the simplicity of integration solutions makes a compelling point for any demographic," Koslowski says. And Ford sales stats support that: Since Sync's introduction, FoMoCo vehicles with the technology have sold nearly twice as fast as those without it.

Future and Present

Koslowski adds that the car tech wave is just beginning to build, and car companies that can appeal to consumers' increasingly connected lifestyles will gain a competitive edge. "It provides the opportunity for vehicle manufacturers to do something that goes beyond just simply providing a means of transportation," he says. "That's something that the automotive industry is beginning to realize, and that's exactly what these technologies can provide."

Down the road you may not even need to carry an iPod, Koslowski adds. "The vehicle itself will become the device," he says, "and content will stream into the car as soon as you open the door and it recognizes you as the driver." Sounds great, but for now most folks would just like their iPods to work without hassle. "It has taken a lot of time and sweat to get to the point we are today," says Koslowski. But it will require a major change of mindset for the auto industry to keep up with consumer electronics trends and consumer expectations, he adds. Audi's mobile device prototype as shown at the 2007 Tokyo Auto Show is a step in the right direction.

"In the case of Bentley, they make great vehicles but are very limited when it comes to integrating portable devices," he says, "and that's a mismatch that the automotive industry cannot afford. Ford's Sync is a step in the right direction," he concludes, "but there has to be much more of that."

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