Apple's next revolution should be in your car

Car stereos and navigation systems are a mess, but Apple could make it all just work

I've had the, er, pleasure in the last few months of driving in a range of cars, most of which were rentals for various business trips. Every car is different, yet the basics such as how the steering wheel and gears work are very similar. How the lights work, mirror adjustments, the location of the parking brake, and where to find the gas cap -- they tend to fall into a handful of common locations. You can get into a car and within a few minutes drive it without much further thought.

But not its stereo system or navigation system. What a mess! You can expect half-dozen or more unmarked buttons that bear no resemblance to those in the next car, wildly different navigation UIs, and a poor ability to access music libraries from connected mobile devices where our music resides every time you get behind the wheel.

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Ford and Microsoft have done a lot of marketing for their joint Sync car stereo system, but after using it on a Focus, let me tell you it's the equivalent of DOS in a Windows 7 world, composed of nine buttons whose purpose is utterly unclear, unintuitive controls, and inconsistent operation with my smartphone. For example, it doesn't work with my smartphone's navigation app and won't play back the driving instructions through its speakers, though it passes through my music. My five-year-old midprice Sony car stereo does all of that better. For a device aimed at young people, Sync's clueless design makes you feel that you should be using eight-track tapes.

A Toyota Prius is little better. The UI is more intuitive, but it also suffers from incomplete integration. Hyundai's system is not bad for music and phone connections, but it really wants you to use its nav system. Based on my highly unscientific sampling, GM, Chrysler, Nissan, Mazda, and Honda seem disinterested, offering run-of-the-mill stereos.

It's clear that most of the auto companies that offer more than a car stereo want to lock you into their interface and services -- as awful as they are. The rest don't care. The aftermarket stereo and nav systems are no better. Stuffed with even more buttons and light-show gewgaws, they're sure to keep your eyes off the road and may not work easily with your stuff. Add to that mix the split focus of also having to use a separate GPS unit in most vehicles, and you have to wonder what keeps our roads so relatively safe.

What did I find myself doing in all these vehicles? Putting on my Bluetooth headset to listen to music and hear my Navigon navigation app's directions from my iPhone, which I set in a cup holder so that I could glance at Navigon's directions screen while driving. It wasn't optimal, but it works much more simply than the built-in or aftermarket equipment, and I have some voice controls.

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