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Cadillac's new infotainment system is not your computer

A Cadillac can’t take the place of your smartphone — and as GM computer engineers tell it, they don’t want it to. But what they are trying to do over time is make the act of using your phone in relation to the car an experience that gets better.

Cadillac will begin selling its next-generation user experience system in the CTS next month, and it will soon be added to the 2018 XTS and ATS models. Last week I traveled to Detroit, deep into the windowless basement operations of GM’s Renaissance Center headquarters, to check out the new system ahead of its official launch.

But first a little background: when I first began covering cars, the assessment of in-car entertainment was wrapped up in a neat paragraph at the end of the review, almost like an afterthought in comparison to ride and handling, fuel economy, and showy 0–60 mile per hour times. These systems weren’t standard, but packaged as more expensive options. But as screens become standardized throughout all models and I talked to more and more customers, I realized that people get really irritated when they struggle with the technology in their cars. Bad tech in cars is no longer excusable, and in some cases it may cause customers to flee.

Photo: General Motors

Let’s hone in on the general differences, which admittedly come down to personal preference. Tesla’s flashy iPad screens appeal to the gadget mind. Audi has a more minimal approach to the stack placing an emphasis on exceptional graphics and a multimedia interface controller. Lincoln will tell you its customers insisted that it return to old-school knobs and buttons. And sometimes it’s the luxury automakers that struggle the most on how to make a system that has more to offer than high-end speakers. Fancy processors and options don’t mean much if the system is more complicated than what’s covered in a one-page engine manual.

Cadillac’s in-car system, CUE, was introduced in 2012, and last overhauled in 2014. Compared to the lowbrow Chevy Mylink system, CUE had a lot of extraneous content, which ended up being its biggest liability. Users complained about lag time and shaky voice commands. In 2015, GM was the first automaker to integrate Apple CarPlay and Android Auto across its entire product lineup, which was a massive step toward making a more logical system that customers found intuitive. But though it feels like Apple and Android are taking over your life, Cadillac insists that a phone can’t do everything, like controlling the car’s complex active safety systems.

But so far there’s been a disconnect for Cadillac, especially if you try to change screens while driving. I noticed the incongruity when I used the outgoing system recently. It was easy to get stuck on the nav screen setting while the car was in motion, and without risking distraction, it wasn’t entirely clear how to find my way back without taking my eyes off the road. The discrepancy was even more apparent after taking a spin in a Cadillac equipped with the new and improved system.

On its new system, Cadillac is looking to button up its approach to the in-car experience for a safer, less distracting, and more logical presentation. What that experience rests on seems basic, but also complex to achieve, and why so many automakers fall short. “It’s really easy to say, and really hard to do, where you’re conveying a lot of information in a short period of time in a way that customers just get and so that you don’t have to explain it to people,” GM’s chief infotainment officer Phil Abram told me.

Before GM, Abram spent years at Sonos. He became GM’s chief of infotainment five years ago. He loves his job, but wrinkles his nose at mention of the title. “Infotainment is a terrible word. I was filled with self loathing for taking the job of chief infotainment officer. It’s such a made up and inwardly focused narcissistic industry word,” he said. He prefers to look at it in a more holistic way. “It’s the way in which the vehicle expresses itself to the driver. It’s the in-vehicle experience.”

Photo: General Motors

The stack that houses the new hardware and software doesn’t look outwardly different. It’s reliant on the same smartphone-like touch interfaces found in the previous generation. What’s most significant for Cadillac is what’s happening on the inside: the move to a whole new platform. It’s a vision that GM has been hinting at for some time, a system that can be updated remotely over time, which in many ways, makes it a game-changer. Unlike your smartphone, a car’s in-car experience has to last for much longer than two years. By accounting for updates, Cadillac is cutting out the divide between what your phone can do versus the car’s antiquated software.

“No, the car is not a computer,” Abram said. “The last thing I want is my car to be like a computer. You want [your car] to be magic. It’s not trying to replicate a smartphone experience in the vehicle.” Abram used the analogy of a kitchen to describe a car company’s role — you might use gadgets in your kitchen for cooking and prepping, but you would never describe your kitchen as electric. A car is a car is a car.

The new Cadillac interface looks far less cluttered than past versions, and it’s evident that’s where Cadillac invested considerable resources. Engineers agonized over presentation, particularly the way the home screen appears — one of the areas where the last generation took hits from critics. The solution they settled on was to add a “front porch” to the home screen, which Cadillac calls the summary view for its customers. Here all the icons are listed in a strip at the bottom, which even at a quick glance, means it’s easier to maneuver. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are at your fingertip.

Photo: General Motors

Abram says the biggest challenge for carmakers is making a platform that can stand the test of time by anticipating uploads of the future, and most importantly does not behave like a snail. “It’s got to be snappy fast,” he said. “For a new experience to have a high latency, drives people insane.” One of the more impressive visuals on the new infotainment system is the much-improved appearance of maps — it’s night and day graphics from the previous generation. The optional navigation app has predictive qualities that update in real time, which brings it up to date with others in the industry.

I used the system for a few minutes and in that short time found it to be prompt. I did not spend much time speaking to it to see if it could understand my Midwestern accent. The new system is also designed to include personalized driver preferences that live in the cloud. I created a user profile and was told that it will follow me from Cadillac to Cadillac, perhaps in anticipation of the car-sharing trends to come.

To prepare for a future where car ownership and the driver’s role are uncertain, GM is gradually opening itself in new ways. It’s easing into a more experimental approach to how its customers manage their time in the car. The Cadillac Collection App store is now open for business through OnStar At Your Service. Cadillac customers get a free yearlong subscription to the service, which features apps for things like weather and audio books. Later this year, this service will include IBM’s Watson, which will study driver preferences to suggest seasonal coffee recommendations, remind customers to run errands, and authorize gas payments. Customers may be able to pay for some services from their car using Mastercard and for parking using Parkopedia.

Photo: General Motors

And Cadillac is also currently accepting submissions for new apps via a software development kit that can be built using HTML5 and JavaScript across 400 data points that include speed measurements and backup cameras. While they say the threshold for acceptance as an official app is high, in theory, any visionary developer has a shot at making the collection. It’s a first step for an automaker that’s been known for being rigid in its supplier relationships.

Cadillac imagines the car as a traveling hotspot, with the option to connect seven devices to the 4GLTE internet in addition to supporting two phones through a Bluetooth connection. In the high-end car segment, time is the biggest luxury of all. It’s a cleaner approach to in-car technology that is more efficient at first glance, but like everything else, learning to live with the system in the real world is the true test of its abilities.


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