When Steve Jobs died last month a cartoon made the rounds picturing St. Peter checking him into heaven on an iPad. Apple products are that ubiquitous. The automobile industry owes Jobs a debt of gratitude, too. His innovations are changing the driving experience.
Auto manufacturers are racing to keep up with the tide of technology. Since the tech world moves faster than the automobile world, it’s been a scramble.
The most obvious change is the full integration of personal entertainment devices – like iPods and more lately iPhones and iPads – into cars. More than 90 percent of new cars sold in America come with at minimum a connectivity option.
Technology rolled quickly beyond tape deck and CD adapters to USB ports and then to fully integrated iPhones /Smartphones that superseded iPods/MP3 players. Ford galloped ahead with its Sync system, giving drivers access to entertainment, climate controls, dashboard instruments and navigation, as well as contacts, business listings, traffic info and navigation. Latest versions also offer limited access to voice-activated text messages and Facebook and Twitter updates. Other automakers quickly followed Ford’s lead.
One of Jobs’ obsessions was streamlined design. His influence is obvious in new automobile cockpits. The myriad dials and gauges are gone, replaced with interactive screens – sleek, simple and user-friendly just like an iPod, iPhone or iPad.
A flood of new applications – “apps” – is geared to drivers. There’s an app for almost everything.
Steve Jobs’ last contribution was the Siri Assistant included with the iPhone 4S. It’s a voice-activated virtual concierge that finds whatever help you need: a locksmith if you’re locked out or a restaurant if you’re hungry.
No need for navigation devices; various apps offer maps, turn-by-turn directions and advice on fastest routes based on the time of day and traffic speeds. Apps locate nearest lowest-priced gasoline and pinpoint traffic jams and speed traps. iBreath plugs into your phone and records your blood alcohol level. There’s an app that starts your car from anywhere, and another that displays speed, distance and altitude (in planes, boats and trains, too).
There are apps that sound off when your parking meter is about to expire, and apps that locate a parked car. At least one helps find vacant parking places. Electric vehicle owners can get help locating plug-ins for 110v or220v. The rest of us can track fuel usage and car maintenance with several apps. There’s even an app (Park4U) available on some Audi and VW models that will park your car while you stand outside.
Travel apps abound. Some offer suggestions for roadside attractions, and to keep you occupied while you drive, there’s an app (Audible) making more than 85,000 audiobooks available. TuneIn Radio accesses more than 40,000 radio stations, both AM and FM.
The iPad is car-friendly, too. After-market iPad cockpit mounts are available. Volkswagen’s Bulli concept car integrated an iPad for both driver and front-seat passenger to use. Tablets’ advantage over Smartphones is that they have larger screens and most of the same apps. They also can be mounted on seatbacks so passengers (kids) can play games or watch movies: more versatile and less expensive than built-in DVD systems.
Finally, the Smartphone and iPad are helping with car-buying, with apps for finding and comparing cars, features and, of course, prices. At least one manufacturer, Mazda, equips sales reps with iPads so they can instantly customize models and show YouTube demonstration videos.
Only a few months ago, some manufacturers started loading owner’s manuals onto iPads. Now they’re already looking for the next cool must-have car app. Steve Jobs would approve.