Technology in cars swerving to the fast lane as automakers look to be more like Google, Apple


I've never been a car person, but it looks like I'm going to have to start paying more attention.

For the last few years, the auto industry and the tech industry have been on a collision course (or "heading down the same road," if you prefer). Having conquered the living room, the music industry, and our phones, tech companies have their sights set next on what we drive. And auto companies want to be more like Apple and Google, turning your next car, truck, or SUV into always connected "Infotainment" centers, complete with apps, more advanced navigation capabilities, voice recognition, and lots of touch screens.

If you followed some of the news from the Los Angeles Auto Show, you might have heard announcements about Sprint bringing a wireless system called Velocity to two Chrysler vehicles — the 2013 RAM 1500 truck and the SRT Viper — and about General Motors incorporating Apple's Siri voice tech into the Chevy Spark and Sonic for 2014.

My own car, a 2007 Prius, has rolled up more than 150,000 miles and I've started to look around at what's out there as I consider a trade-in. The tech inside cars has changed dramatically since the last time I bought one and the wireless-enabled, iPad-influenced cabin-as-holodeck experience you can get today is just the start.

Auto makers are in the unenviable position of trying to match or exceed the kind of polish and utility people expect from their tech gadgets, but also to provide it in a safe way that doesn't distract drivers.

They appear to be realizing the scale of that challenge.

Last week, General Motors hosted journalists at its southeast Austin call center where a new division has been created to handle "Infotainment" support. Staffed primarily by tech-savvy Millennials, this part of the call center is a dark geek cave of a command center where iPads and other tablet devices lie around like party favors.

Staffers answer questions from customers as well as dealerships about the tech features in GM cars and also monitor social networks or engage in email and live web chat conversations about tech features.

It's part of a much larger effort within the company to model the help people get after they buy cars on Apple's Genius Bar experience. GM's 4,500 dealerships will get more training and a designated tech person on site to deal with common problems like pairing up Bluetooth-enabled cell phones with a car's tech system.

The company recently hired 25 tech-savvy "Connected Customer Specialists" deployed to its top auto markets. Mark Harland, the GM Connected Customer Experience manager, says that technology is the key to the resurgence of GM and the U.S. auto industry.

"We're starting to think differently about the technology we put in our cars," Harland said. "Let's not just throw technology at people and assume that they'll naturally gravitate toward it and know how it works."

The challenge is serving young, tech-savvy customers (who typically are buying less expensive cars), and older, more affluent buyers who may be purchasing a fully-loaded Cadillac with an entertainment system that has a steep learning curve. Providing a bad tech experience can invite a near-instant burst of negative word-of-mouth online.

"People get into a vehicle and they can't figure out the damn thing. Then they get online and bash it," Harland said. "We want to push the edge with the technology, but not to overwhelm people."

My own experiences with tech in cars have been a mixed bag lately. I fell in love, while driving a temporary rental over the summer, with Bluetooth audio streaming from my phone (no more wires across the dashboard!). But I was baffled by tough-to-navigate menus in Ford's Sync system. I never figured out how to enable voice commands using the system. I've learned I don't want to live without the backup camera feature on my Prius, but Toyota decided it no longer needed to be a standard feature on new Prius models. I don't do a lot of traveling outside the area by car, but I'd like better options for in-car navigation than just using my cell phone.

GM's line of tech systems includes CUE on its Cadillacs and MyLink and IntelliLink in other models, systems with software that can be continually updated by dealerships as improvements are made and bugs are fixed. On a high-end Cadillac I rode in, I found the gorgeous tech system balky to use with bad menu design and an unresponsive touch screen. Reporters who had taken Cadillacs home to try out said they had similar problems. No matter how expensive the car, it doesn't mean it'll provide a seamless gadget experience.

We're at the beginning of this marriage between our smart phones and tablets and the insides of our cars. If I had to pick five features to wish for in the future, they'd be:

—True distraction-free driving. This is already available as an app feature on some phones, but I'd love a built-in option to automatically put my phone into no-texts, no-alerts mode when I'm in motion.

—More choice in navigation. You can opt to have a pricey navigation system set up in a new car or bring your own GPS or smartphone/ tablet. It would be great if you had the option to switch between them and have whatever you prefer automatically integrated into the car's screen. Apple's recent Maps fiasco showed us that locking users into one kind of mapping software is a recipe for disaster.

—Better ways to navigate music and nav options on the go. Switching between options like satellite radio, an external music device or FM/AM usually requires bouncing around dashboard buttons to switch modes. Maybe Siri integration will lead the way toward fixing this, but there needs to be a much smarter system for aggregating information on all your music options, like what TiVo does for TV and online video. And it should all be controllable with voice-activated commands.

—More voice. In fact everything in the car should have a voice-activated option, from rolling down the windows ("Fresh air, please") to being guided to an available parking spot.

—Driverless cars. Companies including Google are already working on this, but it can't happen soon enough for me. I'd love to turn over the wheel to an AI system that gets me where I want to go, avoids traffic and is completely safe without me even touching the steering wheel. I'm sure it could do a better job than me as a driver.