Why Does Every Car Infotainment System Look So Crappy?

Cadillac has perhaps the ugliest option of the bunch

User interface design is hard, but we've been getting better at it over the years to the point where even a thermostat is easy to use. Automakers, however, seem to have their heads in the sand, taking their design inspiration for their infotainment consoles from old Winamp skins instead of any type of modern interface.

I've been car shopping recently, which means I've sat in a variety of models new and old with a salesperson attempting to justify why their shitty infotainment system — the little dashboard that usually controls at least the radio and phone options — is better than the competition. Pair that up with a number of rentals over the years and I've seen about every car infotainment system around. With a couple very rare exceptions, they're universally horrible and feel like they're designed by someone who hasn't used a computer since 2000.

Most automakers have their own brand of infotainment systems and their bad design is more than skin deep. For example, Audi has MMI, an insane system that uses dials for menu navigation instead of a touchscreen unless you pay to upgrade it. Audi isn't the only one to eschew modern innovation either, BMW's iDrive and Mercedes's Comand both rely on dials for input as well. For years, Lexus has relied on what was basically a mouse for navigation which is as insanely stupid and challenging to use in real life as it sounds.

Most carmakers at least use touch screens, though their interfaces are cluttered and ugly. Ford has SYNC, Nissan has Connect, Toyota has Entune, Kia has UVO, Subaru has STARLINK, and so on and so on. As an example, here's Entune one of the worst options, which looks more at home on a laptop running Windows ME than it does in a brand new car:

Or look at this insane mess of nonsense, from Cadillac's CUE:

On most of these infotainment systems, the menus seem devoid of logic, settings you need to access frequently are often buried beneath several submenus, and when there is a touch screen, they seem sluggish and clunky. There is a 100% you will need to look in the manual to change a very basic setting. Even something simple, like icon design, is the worst. The icons on Chevy's MyLink look like they were pulled from a cheap clipart collection:

On most of infotainment systems you'll find horrible icons that are probably included free with MS Word, weird fonts that don't suit the screen's size, and app integration for services that I'm pretty sure nobody actually uses. Like, who goes to movietickets.com and why would I use whatever Aha radio is? After sitting in a bunch of cars, I was actually longing for classic Winamp. Heck, cram this into a Toyota's center console and I'll buy it today:

I'm not going to even touch on how bad the navigation systems included with these things are, but rest assured, they're as horrible as you remember. For whatever reason, classic car GPS systems have been behind smartphone options for a long time, and even if it didn't take 35 minutes to type an address into one of those things, there's a very good chance that all you'll see on the screen is a pixelated blown-up mess of a map that's near impossible to read.

It's not all bad news, of course. Tesla at least seems to be on the right track, though the 17-inch touchscreen includes in their cars is so comically large that I imagine it's a huge distraction. Not that I'd know, since I can't even afford to sit in a Tesla let alone drive one. Volvo also seems on the right track with Sensus, which for some oddball reason is a vertical screen instead of horizontal, but is otherwise the minimally designed interface that you'd want in a four ton moving vehicle. It's easy to use, you can customise it to a small extent, and it's generally inoffensive. It's also brand spanking new though, and the previous Volvo systems weren't much to look at.

Then there's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which feel like what happens when the carmakers give up on their own systems and just let someone else make it. Both options leverage the power of the phone you already use for music and navigation to power the car's infotainment options as well.

This comes with its own set of pros and cons. Android Auto and CarPlay are pretty much universally improvements to automaker's awful first-party infotainment options, but they still have some issues. Namely, apps have to actually support the two services, which means that you can't always access every app. For example, with CarPlay, you're locked into mostly first-party Apple apps, like Apple Maps. For iOS users, this is a huge downside, because even though Apple Maps has improved over the years, it's still not as good as Google Maps or Waze. Thankfully, you're not locked into Apple Music or Apple Podcasts at least, as Spotify, Pandora, Pocket Casts, Overcast, and others support CarPlay. Android Auto is a little better, but still pretty limited in the third-party options you have. With either option, there's a good chance at least one of the apps you use for audio won't work with it.

One minor quibble with both is that you'll still need to actually use your car's shitty infotainment system occasionally, as neither CarPlay nor Android Auto can handle any car-wide settings changes. Still, both are an improvement, and if nothing else is at least a sign that automakers have given up entirely on trying to force their awfully designed systems down our throats.

But still, not everyone has an iPhone or Android device, and not everyone wants to link up their phone to their car stereo in the first place. No matter what, these car infotainment systems and their stupid names will be a part of lives for years to come, so it'd be nice if they could at least look like they were designed in the last decade.

We don't need much here! Just don't nest menus deep inside other submenus, hand over your icon design to an actual designer instead of snagging some icon from Shutterstock, use large buttons that are easy to tap while driving, and spend a few extra bucks to give the whole thing a modern sheen so it doesn't look straight out of 1998.

Look, I know this is hard and expensive to do. I know that cars often only have ancient hardware in them that can't run much more than a text interface. I know this is near the bottom of the list of priorities in cars, but maybe it's time to move it up a bit.

Heck, you could even cut off access to any setting that could get me killed if I adjusted it wrong, then open up the entertainment portion Linux-style so I can install whatever I want on there. If nothing else, it'd be nice to at least have OS upgrade option so that I could at least have hope of change.


Comments

    I have a 2016 Hyundai and use the inbuilt Android Auto - it's bloomen fantastic!

    It also evolves overtime so it can get updated much more regularly than the inbuilt system.

    When my wife plugs in her iPhone, it isn't great (First party map support only etc) however the potential here is massive.

    My mum recently bought a new Holden thing, looks like a tiny SUV pretending to be a sneaker. Anyway, the inbuilt system is hilariously bad, same thing you're talking about here. My mum was having trouble accessing the GPS too until she figured out that while there was a button for the GPS the car didn't actually have one, you had to link your phone to it through some magic crap. She ended up buying a new iPhone just to use the car's GPS.

    Mazda make beautiful cars but their stereos from the basic Mazda 2 through to the premium CX-5 are an absolute disgrace. Bluetooth support is unreliable, drops out, and has very poor audio quality. Their own voice recognition system interrupts Apple's Siri and there is no simple way to trigger Siri (which often fails anyway because their own system interrupts!). It's grotesque that in 2017 that Mazda can't properly support one of the most popular phones on the planet.

    I gave up and just use Android Auto directly on my phone. It starts automatically when the Bluetooth connection makes, so all I have do do is place it in the dock. The head unit is then just for volume control.

    Because in 3 years time (when a car is usually still relatively new), it will be the "in" thing...

    Tim Cook will announce a new retro design and all the sheeple will go ooooooo...

    The Bolero system on my Skoda is surprisingly functional without looking like shareware from 1995. Bluetooth has been very robust, and allowed me to stream from cloud via my Android phone.

    However I mostly listen to podcasts in the car, and having a scrolling touch interface to select tracks and rewind/ff is awesome.

    The UConnect system in the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee's is pretty good (i have an Overland). Full control of all electric settings, Navigation system is great, finding music in your library is fairly easy too, and navigating it is a sinch (although it can take time to know all the settings because there are so many). Only negative though is that the UConnect system controls EVERYTHING i your car that is electric & not on the drivers dashboard. So if it dies, you're screwed.

    There are so many reasons automakers will never do what you suggest (one quick example: dealers want you to schedule an appointment in order to upgrade your entertainment firmware/OS so they can get you into the shop). It would be easier for Apple to build a car around the iPhone than for the automakers to create a decent infotainment system in their cars.

    Don't forget the guts of most of them is bloody atrocious too; Back end of my MY13 Hyundai's infotainment is a MIPs RISC Processor running Windows CE 6.0. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

    Eyes off road systems: I hate them. I pine for the approach in my old Rover 2000TC where the knobs were all different shapes so that muscle memory would take over and no eyes off road problem.
    A head up display would help, but I prefer the controls on steering wheels: an easy thumb move does everything.

      My friend bought a new car and pulled out the head unit and put in an Android Auto capable one. I went to visit as he was telling it what each button on the steering wheel did.
      Tell it to 'listen' then press the button. Then assign that button to 'volume up' or whatever it is. So you can control them with those buttons.

    I work in the Auto industry, and have long agreed that automakers do crap interfaces for the infotainment in 80% of cases.
    There is a couple of things that many people may not consider: a mix of real buttons and touchscreen is required in cars so that the driver does not need to look away from the road to find the right place to press, and that the development cycle is long and carmakers will try to lock down the look and feel of the system early in the process - by the time it hits the streets its out of date. The process needs to be updated if this is to change.

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