In many ways, the Detroit Auto Show has become a kind of consumer electronics show for cars, where you're just as likely to see the rollout of a new app or entertainment system as the introduction of next year's models.
"The growth in mechanical changes [has] now become incremental, whereas the growth in the consumer electronics industry seems to be taking place at a rate that is almost unprecedented," says Thomas Tetzlaff, a spokesman for Volkswagen Canada.
Tetzlaff says the average young driver doesn't necessarily want their car to be a rolling oasis — they're more interested in staying connected to social media like Facebook or Twitter.
"We have realized that if we shut our customers out of that, they're going to shut us out of the equation," he says. "The vehicles we're showing today — although we're touting the outsides and the engines — we're cognizant of the fact that we need to bring the technology to the dashboard, to the driver."
Almost every car company, including Volkswagen, is working with outside suppliers to bring consumer electronics to the dashboard. For example, Cadillac's CUE — or Cadillac User Experience — has voice control and projects anything from a text message to a map onto the windshield in front of you. It also has a touch screen on the center console that can interact with your smartphone, the radio and the Internet.
CUE designer Matt Highstrom tried to show me how the touch screen works, but he ran into some technical difficulties. To be fair to the folks at Cadillac, we were in an auto show demo, not a working car. But the glitch we experienced gets to the heart of one problem when it comes to consumer electronics: they're prone to bugs and that can mean trouble when you're driving 65 mph.
Consumer Reports' David Champion has been a critic of many car entertainment systems — especially ones that use flat-panel screens.
"I'm an engineer and I hate to knock on engineers, but engineers want to give the system the capability of doing anything and everything that you could ever want to do," Champion says, but those capabilities can come at a price. Touch screens require that your eyes follow what your hands are doing, and that can be very distracting. Champion says that's why cars have knobs and buttons — so you can feel what you're doing without having to look.
"The driving experience is so fundamentally different than, say, the desktop experience," says Jeremy Anwyl of Edmunds.com. "Getting a bunch of guys in a room [who] used to write programs for Microsoft or whoever is probably not the right way to be thinking about this human-machine interface."
Anwyl says companies like General Motors and Honda still have a long way to go before they can become the Apple or Microsoft of dashboard technology.