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August 23, 2013

News & Features

Domestic automakers step up battle for best-connected cars

Detroit Free Press

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General Motors' Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, has no buttons or knobs. (General Motors)

General Motors is the pioneer, Ford the innovator and Chrysler the sleeper in the battle for the best infotainment system among domestic automakers.

Detroit's automakers have followed three distinct paths to allow drivers to play their music, get directions, make calls and stay constantly connected while behind the wheel. Here's a look at how the companies are tackling connectivity and infotainment from different angles.

Infotainment essentials

Shopping for a vehicle with an infotainment system? Here's what a good system should offer:
• Bluetooth for hands-free phone calls and streaming audio
• Response to one or two quick commands to perform common tasks such as making a call
• Commands that are easy to remember
• A quick response to commands
• An accurate understanding of commands

GM starts with OnStar
GM's OnStar was introduced as a subscription service offering safety and concierge services. You pushed the OnStar button to connect to a call center; agents knew your location from GPS chips, and the cellular technology made the vehicle act like a built-in phone.

GM later augmented OnStar by adding the ability to sync the driver's smartphone to its vehicles for hands-free access. GM plans to introduce 4G broadband speed in some 2015 models, giving cars the option to double as Wi-Fi hot spots.

Today, each GM brand has a customized infotainment system. Chevrolet has the low-cost MyLink system that relies on Bluetooth to access online content via smartphone. Buick and GMC call their similar system Intellilink.

The Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, is a high-end system delivered through a black-and-chrome touch screen with no conventional buttons or knobs. The sleek system debuted on the XTS a year ago and continues to roll out across the lineup, including the new ATS and the SRX.

Ford stays in Touch
Ford's original MyFord Touch system made the car an extension of the driver's smartphone. It was a mammoth success and made Ford an instant technology leader.

But the next-generation MyFord Touch — which centered on new touch-screen technology made popular by Apple products — was glitchy and hard to operate. Drivers said the loss of dials and knobs made it dangerous to operate while driving.

Two years ago Ford started restoring buttons, and this will continue as each model is redesigned in the years ahead. Similar moves are underway with MyLincoln Touch, which is the most sophisticated version of the system for the luxury brand.

Chrysler blends Uconnect
Chrysler's Uconnect system incorporates the best aspects of a number of other systems. Uconnect is a hybrid of embedded cellular technology and subscription services, and has the ability to sync a smartphone. Uconnect also introduced a 3G broadband modem into the new Ram and Viper to make the vehicle an Internet hot spot that other computing devices can tap into.

Drivers can choose to subscribe to a service, much like GM's OnStar, and use the car's built-in phone. Or they can choose to sync their smartphone through the car's infotainment system, using it to make calls and access music and the Internet.

Everyone is experimenting with how to leverage the technology, says Michael Noblett, of IBM global business development. "I don't know who's got it right, but it's great that they are all working on it."

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