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Carmakers Should Embrace Silicon Valley and Stop Pissing Off Customers

Look no further than what happened to smartphone makers to figure out how the connected car plays out.

Rashevskyi Viacheslav/Shutterstock

Though the connected car is one of the hottest topics in the transportation sector this year, the concept of the connected car is anything but new: Systems like GM’s OnStar, BMW Assist and Lexus Link launched well over a decade ago, wirelessly linking millions of cars via GPS and the cellular networks that were just beginning to reach global penetration. By some accounts, those systems have been very successful — for instance, GM just recorded its billionth customer interaction via OnStar several months ago.

But the idea of what a connected car is — what capabilities it should offer, what it should look like — is rapidly changing. That’s a topic I plan to explore onstage today at Code/Mobile at The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Historically, cars and smartphones developed in parallel on wildly different timescales. In the smartphone revolution’s formative years, Apple and Samsung reinvented their devices every twelve months like clockwork; the automotive industry, meanwhile, spent half a decade or more designing a new model, having it certified by regulatory bodies around the world, scaling up production and releasing it. This mismatch in pacing put these industries on a collision course: As automakers rushed to put navigation systems and concierge services in their cars that were outdated by the time they rolled off the assembly line, smartphone and mobile data use exploded, often covering the same ground (Google Maps, Yelp, the list goes on). While iOS and Android — and the apps they offered — improved immeasurably over the span of half a decade, the systems in our cars barely moved. Even the most forward-thinking in-car systems like Ford’s SYNC were panned for being slow, finicky and complex. And unlike a phone, it’s much more difficult to swap out your car every year or two.

The introduction of Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto were designed to solve this conflict. By supporting these systems and ceding control of entertainment and navigation systems to Google and Apple, automakers could bring the world of mobile apps and familiar and beloved user experiences to consumers. Automakers also could stop plowing resources into unfamiliar areas and focus on what they do best — making cars — while iOS and Android would finally have a way to integrate cleanly without a suction-cup mount on the windshield.

But the reaction from the auto industry has been mixed. While some companies — Hyundai, Volkswagen and GM, for instance — have been fairly aggressive in supporting the systems, several of the world’s largest automakers, including Toyota, Ford and BMW, still have no timeline in place. (Some haven’t even committed to supporting them at all.)

The glacial pacing of the auto industry relative to the consumer electronics industry is at least partly to blame, but it’s not the only culprit; after all, GM now offers CarPlay on a majority of the vehicles that it sells. A deeper issue, I believe, is pride — a sense that automakers are at risk of losing their identities by ceding control of the dashboard to Silicon Valley. The companies that have not committed to offering CarPlay or Android Auto are often quick to mention that they’re only acting in the best interest of their customers and trying to deliver the best experience possible.

But here’s the thing: They have proven time and again that they are not able to deliver the best experience possible. It’s not their fault, really — the cards stacked against them are manifold: The slower development cycle, the learning curve of a UI entirely different from that of our smartphones, the inability to achieve scale with a proprietary in-car app platform. But while this plays out, customers — everyday car buyers – are the pawns in a global tug-of-war. No one wins.

We know how this ends, because we’ve seen a variation of it before. Major Android smartphone manufacturers like Samsung, HTC and Motorola once made deep changes to the stock Android on which they were based, more often worsening the experience for the user than improving it. Over time, these OEMs have heard the complaints from customers and the media and backed off, hewing closer to Android’s roots. The result, I’d argue, has been a better selection of world-class flagship Android phones than at any point since the platform’s debut.

I believe we’ll see the same thing in the auto industry. The generation of vehicles that’s rolling off assembly lines today is likely the last one where buyers won’t consider excellent smartphone integration a basic, must-have feature. Over the next several years, automakers will come to understand this, one negative customer interaction at a time. Eventually, CarPlay support will be a universally standard feature, no different from air conditioning or power windows.

It’s just going to take a little pride-swallowing (and perhaps some lost sales) to get there.

Chris Ziegler is deputy editor at The Verge and oversees the publication’s transportation coverage.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.