Why is in-car tech so complicated?

April 7, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
With CarPlay, Apple aims to simplify the in-car tech experience.

FORTUNE — When the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is unveiled this fall, making its proper debut with it will be Apple’s CarPlay, an in-car technology system that will mimic the smartphone interface — including the touch-screen, if present — that legions of people carry in their pockets every day.

Apple’s (AAPL) entry into the world of automobiles is noteworthy for several reasons. The company enters markets deliberately and ruthlessly, for one, rarely doing so without readjusting the playing field. The automotive industry is large and lucrative, dominated by players so established that some predate the sinking of the Titanic. And above all, the application of consumer technology to the automotive industry has been sorely and frustratingly lacking in terms of the experience to which drivers and passengers are subject. As consumers marvel at the phone’s simplicity in summoning driving directions or responding to a friend’s message, they scowl at the car’s complexity in doing the same. Something is surely lost in translation with the addition of 3,000 lbs. of steel in motion.

It’s not for lack of trying. General Motors (GM) introduced its MyLink telematics system in its 2012 models; Ford (F) rolled out its MyFordTouch system the year prior and its Sync system in 2007, the same year that the iPhone was introduced. Audi has its Connect system. Toyota (TM) has its Entune. Kia has its Microsoft-powered Uvo (MSFT) and big brother Hyundai its Blue Link.

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What none of these carmakers seem to have is fans of their in-car technology. The systems are complex, a nest of hardware buttons and interface flows that confound even the savviest of smartphone users. They can be imperfect in their relative infancy, challenging the patience of drivers who know better than to look away from the road. And they add a new dynamic — does a software update warrant a dealer visit? — to the relatively straightforward driving experience.

“It’s not optimal,” says Thilo Koslowski, a Gartner analyst who studies in-car technology. “It hasn’t really captured the experience that it should look like.”

Part of this has to do with the engineering cycle of cars, says Mark Scalf, the OnStar engineering group manager for developer products and applications at General Motors. The technology available in cars today was finished in production three to five years ago, he says. That means that engineers today are “wrapping up specifications and designs” for technology in vehicles scheduled to hit showrooms in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Not that frustration with these systems is derived solely from their age.

“The level of integration we have right now is rather primitive,” says Phil Abram, chief infotainment officer for GM’s Global Connected Customer Group. “The rest of the technology is getting to the point where it’s ready to be integrated into a car. That’s on Apple and Google and … the [wireless] carriers to bring forth systems and standards that make sense. We’re just entering that phase right now.”

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In other words, it isn’t so much that in-car technology systems are especially complicated; they just haven’t captured what a technology experience for a driver ought to look like because engineers and drivers alike are still learning what that experience should be. Gartner’s Koslowski partly attributes the unwieldy experience of today’s in-car tech to automakers’ misunderstandings of what consumers want.

“[In-car technology] should be for consumers to extend their digital lifestyle into an automobile,” he says. “Car companies are not understanding this digital world really well.”

That starts with the assumption that drivers want to give up their smartphones in the first place. In practice, drivers seem to care less about embedded technology that replicates their phone or tablet’s functionality — multiple screens, voice-activated controls, all manner of connectivity — and more about whether their current digital habits remain intact once they get behind the wheel. A 2013 study of emerging technologies in the auto industry conducted by J.D. Power identified that more than 80% of drivers “cite pre-purchase interest in an in-vehicle device/app link that would connect their smartphone to their vehicle’s infotainment system.” In other words, they see the vehicle as another node in their personal digital network — if it connects to extend that network, great; if not, too bad.

The distinction is important as car companies begin to compete on technology, not just gas mileage or cup-holders.

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“Car companies finally realized that this type of stuff is differentiating,” says Scalf, who joined GM a year ago after working as an app developer in southern California. “It is something that customers value in their new car purchase decision. And they need to plan for this — they need to treat this technology as a platform as opposed to a single-purpose device.”

Which means that the new wave of in-car technology must, according to Scalf, be focused more on software than hardware. Imagine an in-car tech platform that is fully compatible with whatever mobile operating system and apps a driver already uses on other connected devices.

There are signs of progress: GM’s CES announcement that the 2015 line of OnStar-equipped Chevrolet vehicles will have 4G LTE connectivity is significant because it means that the connected car can handle the same types of services popular on a smartphone or tablet. This is what makes the introduction of Apple’s CarPlay important. This is why the 2014 creation of an Open Automotive Alliance — with Audi, GM, Honda (HMC), and Hyundai as members — to make Google’s Android (GOOG) operating system a common platform for in-car infotainment systems is important.

“You can’t take just a mobile app experience and cut and copy that exact experience into the automotive context,” Scalf says. “Because I’m driving … the user experience really needs to be different. [We’re] trying to get developers to think of automotive as a different experience, as a way to extend your brand and your product experience into the car in a very different way.”

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The core purpose of a car — to shuttle a passenger from point A to B — remains intact. But how does technology improve that trip?

“Nobody has cracked the code completely,” Koslowski says.

It’s too early to determine how these tech alliances will add up. For example, though GM is a founding member of the OAA, it is also looking into incorporating Apple’s CarPlay in future Chevrolet models, Abram says.

But all automakers have their sights set on a new wave of customers — and perhaps the potential to be as cool to the connected generation as they were to their grandparents in the 1950s.

“I believe that the car companies will get to the point that the automobile will become the coolest device you can think of,” Koslowski says. “Cooler than a smartphone. More innovative than a tablet. Because of all the real estate in the car.”