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How the Internet will complicate your car

Rick Newman
The Exchange
Source: Thinkstock

The digital revolution has swamped everything else, so it’s inevitable it will take over your automobile. And the movement seems to have gotten a big boost with the recent announcement of a “common-platform” partnership between Google (GOOG), chip maker Nvidia (NVDA) and four major automakers — General Motors (GM), Honda, Audi and Hyundai.

To appreciate the promise of “connected cars,” consider every bit of hype you’ve ever heard from the tech sector. For starters, you and your passengers will get to enjoy all the apps you’ve grown accustomed to on your smartphone, in surround-sound, wherever you travel. Beyond that, in-car Internet may eventually make possible self-driving cars that basically provide every commuter an automated chauffeur. Certain types of maintenance and repair might be done through a cellular connection, with no trip to the dealer necessary. Maybe your car will even run tedious errands without you, picking up supplies that roll off a robotic assembly-line at Costco (COST).

That would be awesome, I guess. But before all that happens, in-car Internet is likely to fall far short of the hype. “The idea is to extend consumers’ digital lifestyles into the vehicle,” says Thilo Koslowski, head of the automotive practice at research firm Gartner. “But so far, the auto industry is doing too much cutting and pasting of what people already do on their smartphones.” Here are four reasons connected cars are going to seem underwhelming for a while:

Your car will remain far less enthralling than your phone. Digital technology creates a conundrum for automakers. First, there have to be limitations on the types of apps and other services installed on your dashboard, since a driver can’t play Candy Crush or Angry Birds while safely monitoring the road. Even when familiar apps such as Pandora (P) or Sticher are available through a car’s entertainment system, they tend to be streamlined versions stripped of visual cues that might take a driver’s eyes off the road.

Automakers also prefer to install proven technology in their vehicles that will last a long time, rather than trendy gizmos that might become unpopular next year. Over time, they'll probably become more comfortable with features you swap in and out over time, but until that happens, your phone will still be the place you try out new apps and generally track your digital life. Compared with that, your car will continue to seem a step or two behind.

Somebody has to pay for your car’s cellular connection. Most people already bring their smartphones into their cars, in some cases connecting them to the vehicle's entertainment system through wireless Bluetooth, or by using a small cable if Bluetooth isn’t available. The next step is a cellular connection that goes straight to the car itself, with no need for a phone. That would allow you to skip a step (connecting your phone to the car), while still getting the apps you want on the dashboard. Audi’s in-car connection even turns the car into a roving hotspot that can support as many as eight other devices via WiFi.

Somebody has to pay for that extra cellular connection, however — which is exactly why mobile service providers are promoting the service. AT&T (T) plans to allow subscribers to add a dedicated GM, Audi or Tesla vehicle to their data plan beginning with 2015 models — a type of arrangement that could become commonplace. AT&T hasn’t announced pricing, but Audi already offers service through T-Mobile (TMUS) for $30 per month, or less if you commit to a long-term plan. Keep in mind, that’s for a 3G-quality connection, not for 4G or satellite service that works beyond range of a cell tower. Some drivers may decide it’s worth it but others will balk at the added cost.

Overcomplexity. Automakers have already been rolling out lots of new infotainment technology, including Ford’s Sync system, the Cadillac “Cue” interface — meant to mimic a tablet device — and gizmos in many other autos that operate like a mouse and monitor. For all the new features such systems enable, drivers have been frustrated by confusing menu options, which are hard to navigate while driving. And research groups such as Consumer Reports have downgraded brands with overcomplicated controls. This problem could get worse before it gets better. Some automakers tout voice-activated controls as a solution, except they don’t always work smoothly and some drivers don’t like talking to their cars (or to Siri, for that matter). Plus, hands-free gizmos can distract drivers just as much as some hands-on controls.

To all this confusion, add the dichotomy between Apple (AAPL) and Google devices, which may soon extend to automobiles. “Just as you can choose between a leather or cloth interior, you might have to choose between an Apple or Android system when you pick out a new car,” says Koslowski. “You might even go a step further and pick up a new phone when you buy a car.” Of course, you’d have to commit to one system or the other for the life of the car, and anybody who rode with you would have to abide by that system as well.

Too much entertainment, not enough driving. Passengers may be able to watch streaming movies and play interactive games on the road, but for now, at least, the driver is still in charge. And in-car Internet won’t have that much appeal to drivers (who usually pay for the car) until there are new services that help them get to work faster, find cheap parking in a crowded city, maintain their cars better and more cheaply, and perhaps even drive less. Such services may be coming, but they'll rely on a lot of other networking that’s still being put in place.

Cars, meanwhile, are still mainly a way to get from one place to another. The Internet hasn’t changed that — yet.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .