Jerry and Me

I was meeting my buddy, Ajay Juneja, CTO and founder of Speak with Me, for coffee at Coupa on Ramona and he was on the phone. As I waited for him to finish he says, “Well here is a telematics expert right in front of me. Jerry meet Michelle….” and handed me the phone. It was Jerry Hirsch, The LA Times famed automotive staff writer. I quickly made arrangements for a proper discussion on connected vehicles later. Ajay is like that, he is not only full of surprises, but he seems to know everyone. And he is a huge, huge, huge car nut – a real gear head. So, I always make time to have coffee with Ajay to chitchat about the industry, technology, and cars. And I was pretty excited to have lined up a proper interview with Jerry prior to the LA Auto Show.

Access to mobile apps is not the answer to the ease of use for connectivity in the car. What needs to happen is a BREAKTROUGH for in-vehicle interaction design that allows for rich interactions that are not distracting.

Jerry was prepping for the Connected Car Forum and wanted my perspective on the “technological tower of Babel when it comes to cars and phones”; a topic near and dear to my heart. He wanted to talk standards, how to make interfaces better for consumers, mirroring solutions, third party app developers, and such. I was pretty psyched.

I really thought long and hard about what Jerry was interested in understanding, knowing he is a self-described “non-technologist”. To his first question, regarding one standards and perhaps an open source code that everyone follows, I really believe that it is not a specification/standard problem. I think the question behind Jerry’s question is not how can we get more apps in our cars, but how can we make in-vehicle connectivity features more accessible and easier for the driver.

Breaking it down a bit, Android is technically open sourced, but you have a huge variety in how it’s been implemented and hardware constraints are going to compound feature set availability as well. Interactions with mobile phones are not universally set – there are huge design differences in design between Apple, Samsung, BlackBerry, etc. Even web browsers, 20 years later, do not agree on how data elements should be presented and the web is full of “standards”. And no one is asking the various mobile phone makers to follow one standard, open source code, or one universal design.

I think the entire premise of asking OEMs to follow a common in-vehicle design interface for smart phones is a false one. Interaction technologies that work and are wide spread, will be adopted, like Bluetooth, but that does not necessarily mean they will be “easy” or reduce trouble for some customers. If you are really asking about ease of use, you have to look at several things – what should people be doing besides driving and what can we do to make those tasks safer.

Smart phones have shown us the power of information retrieval and presentation of information. If you think about the brain, 60% of it’s activity is habitualized/routine behavior. The brain looks for short cuts – as a way of energy management. So, we need to figure out, using the best of computer science – information retrieval – and interaction design – how to make access to the information we really need, work while still driving a car safely – bring forward the 40% of active brain power to the task of actually driving. To me, that is what we need to do, make access to information so easy, the 60% routine brain activity can handle it.

In my mind’s eye, there are a handful of use cases that really matter – making phone calls, listening to music, and navigating. But there are hundreds of variations on those use cases – you need access to your contacts, you have music on your phone, in your cloud, on the radio, you need to know where you are going, you need to find destinations, you need to know the best way to several destinations, you need to know when you are going to get there, and where you should park.

Access to mobile apps is not the answer to the ease of use for connectivity in the car. What needs to happen is a BREAKTROUGH for in-vehicle interaction design that allows for rich interactions that are not distracting. And a break through in contextual understanding, coupled with information retrieval.

In the email Jerry sent with the questions he wanted to discuss, he posed “would it be better to let people bring their own devices with navigation into the car instead of having to buy another navigation system that is more expensive and basically inferior” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

There is no question in my mind that maps and navigation are central to driving and there is room for improvement. Maps need to be easily and affordably updatable with the latest information and features, but hardware constraints will persist (even Tesla hasn’t figured it out!) Integrating key features – better estimated time of arrival, better alternative route guidance (for shortest time, most ecological, etc.), the ability to quickly let people know where you are and when you will be arriving – permissions based, of course – having street names snap to the view with font sizes you can increase, more intuitive directions with not just turn by turn, but also landmark identification, and directions not just to the location, but to the best parking spot for the destination. All these improvements can be and should be addressed. But to me, the answer is not necessarily an embedded navigation system or a smart phone – it’s a hybrid system that utilizes the best of both worlds, that put features that are best suited to embedded resources in the vehicle and puts other features that are best suited to the phone there. And finally, really allow the maintenance and servicing to be done in the cloud – things that require heavy amount of resources and/or quickly changing APIs. A hybrid navigation platform will also allow us to scale services to fit various model segments and their corresponding hardware constraints.

We went on to talk about app developers, driver distraction, OTA, and a handful of other topics, but nothing in as much detail as what I wrote about above.

Which is why I was so surprised by the one, small, quote from me that made it into his story…it was about OTA and Tesla! Ha! Here I had prepped for several days to really answer his question and all I got was a shout out for Tesla. Good thing I think that car and that company!!

The full text of Jerry Hirsch’s article may be found at the LA Times: L.A. Auto Show: Why the technology in your car doesn’t work