Editorial: Apple's Dash for the Dashboard

Cars are dangerous, all the more when drivers reach for controls positioned at arm's length. Road risk is increased by the fact that many drivers seek distraction or productivity while rolling along. Multitasking while behind the wheel can be more perilous than driving drunk.

The car also represents third-party business opportunities. It is an under-served mobile environment. Many apps that work beautifully at home or in a coffee shop, such as music playback or messaging, are halting or awkward in the rolling living room of a car.

The race is on for control of the car's infotainment systems. Apple's recently granted patent for a touchscreen dash is Cupertino's aim toward owning the dashboard operating system and interface, in ways that hook into the company's device and media businesses. But thorny competition comes not only from other tech companies, but also from the car companies. And whatever victories Apple enjoys in the dashboard could ultimately be neutered by longer-term automotive tech inventions.

The patent grant culminates a long application process and merges several components. Invention credit goes to Timothy R. Pryor, a Canadian inventor, some of whose patents Apple has purchased over the years. Pryor has been working on digital dashboard designs for more than 20 years. This patent's central premise: "This invention seeks to dramatically increase the utility of car informational displays and controls, while at the same time enhancing safety by improving sensory data presentation and ease of interaction with vehicle controls and data sources."

I find the micro-vibrational feedback on the LG Nexus 4 to be quite useful, and it feels odd to use phones that don't do that.

The improved sensory presentation involves "programmable tactile display," described as a mashup of traditional knob control and modern touch control. Touchscreens would incorporate tactile features (bumps, indentations, ridges), which would presumably allow eyes-on-the-road screen operation, and operational feedback you can feel. (I find the micro-vibrational feedback on the LG Nexus 4 to be quite useful, and it feels odd to use phones that don't do that.)

Presumably, Siri voice activation would be part of any iOS-based dashboard system. There are two obvious problems with that scenario. First, Siri isn't good enough yet for mission-critical work. (Neither is Android's voice-recognition companion.) Second, car cockpits are noisy, which would confuse built-in Siri even more.

Apple is picking a good battle in the dashboard. Existing digital systems on average get a low rating from many people for many models. My wife has SYNC in her 2010 Ford Escape, and the first thing she did was connect her phone via Bluetooth. Her job at that time involved hours on the road, calling ahead to clients from a large contact list. "Call Bob!" she would yell out to her dashboard. "Calling Deb," the car would purr back without requesting confirmation. Deb would answer the phone while my wife swerved down the road screaming at the car to hang up. The Escape had a stubborn reluctance to end a call. My wife had to -- this is true -- pull over and turn off the car to hang up. Ford's solution? The dealer told her to buy a new phone.

Ecosystem companies like Apple love to solve single-point problems by locking users into walled environments whose components work beautifully together. Apple is masterful at building those networks and creating loyalty in them. The Apple discipleship would swoon over a car with a ground-up iOS dashboard.

But is there a need for a unifying OS in the car at all?

But is there a need for a unifying OS in the car at all? Maybe. Today, the digital dashboard is a fragmented, balkanized battleground, just as the web and mobile handset industries are. You can connect some amount of app function to your car's output systems in most roadworthy cars. I have an anti-tech, 2001 sports car. I get in, plug an adapter into my phone's headphone jack and stream playlists through the Bose sound system. (I guess it's not completely anti-tech. The car also has cruise control. But no digital screens to distract from its sweet ride.)

Whether via wireless or cables, and given a good data connection, you can enjoy music apps and GPS just by bringing your phone or tablet into the car. But climate control, in-dash radio and GPS adjustments on the fly are all difficult. Bringing some controls onto the steering wheel is an analog solution.

Business wars are raging over how to control functions that are inherently digital -- in particular, music playback. Three touchstones of this evolution are AM/FM radio, satellite radio (Sirius XM owning that space) and newer streaming services. Things get slivered quickly around streaming solutions. Pandora is cutting deals with dozens of car companies, leveraging its popularity as the most-used (by a wide margin) "internet radio" brand. Apple's announcement of iTunes Radio briefly referenced upcoming integration deals with a dozen car models. Aggregators like Livio Connect provide dashboard presence for internet-streaming terrestrial stations, and are also seeking licensing deals with carmakers. And the car companies themselves are creating proprietary digital dashboards powered by a combination of plug-in and native operation.

Apple's brand clout and user base could be attractive to car companies, regardless of whether the product is particularly innovative. (Can't publish an Apple article without mentioning innovation at least once.) If that's true, where is Google in the dashboard land rush?

Google could be executing an end run around the digitized car problem in two ways. First: Glass. Don't roll your eyes. Oh, go ahead, roll your eyes, but if the essential problem of digital controls in a car is their distance from the driver, miniaturizing those controls and putting them close to the driver's eyeball is good in theory. Voice control through a mic. Audio response through an earbud. Translucent visuals. Android brains in the car's climate, navigation and audio systems.

Or, looking at a more distant horizon, Google's stake in autonomous cars could obviate the dashboard to a large extent. If the car is doing the driving, the human occupant can enjoy his or her mobile apps the way God intended us to use smartphones: eyes on the screen, absorbed in the digital realm, pecking on glass keyboards and sending typo-infested messages to ephemeral friends.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.