After years of determining in absentia how portable devices connect to cars (its called iPod integration for a reason), Apple became an official automotive supplier when it announced Siri Eyes Free last June. Ten months down the road, only GM has implemented the feature, which uses the cars on-board voice-recognition hardware as a pass-through to Apples cloud-based iPhone virtual assistant.
Just two of the nine automakers splashed across the screen at Apples 2012 Worldwide Developers Conference as Siri Eyes Free partners have solid plans to integrate it. Honda and Mercedes-Benz have implementations coming to market. Ferrari recently made Siri and the iPad Mini a standard feature in its FF four-seater supercar, following a CEO sit-down last year between Ferraris Luca di Montezemolo and Apples Tim Cook.
Its not surprising that automakers have been slow to integrate Siri Eyes Free due to the long product lead times that prevent cars from keeping pace with consumer electronics, and also difficulties with making running changes to production vehicles. But its highly atypical of Apple to introduce a product or feature only to have it take so long to get to market particularly one introduced with such fanfare.
Chevy was the first to make Siri Eyes Free available on its entry-level Spark and Sonic vehicles earlier this year via MyLink radio. Honda is in beta testing and expects to have the feature in its latest vehicles by summer. And Mercedes-Benz will launch Siri Eyes Free integration later this month through an add-on accessory: the Drive Kit Plus for iPhone that was originally released in Europe last year for the entry-level A Class.
But after reaching out to the other seven automakers and speaking with GM about what it took to integrate Siri Eyes Free, it could take a bit longer before the feature appears in a large number of new cars.
BMW said that it will still be several months before we will be able discuss our integration of Siri Eyes Free. Audi replied, We dont have any announcements on this front as of yet. Chrysler simply said its not ready to discuss the implementation. Jaguar/Land Rover said that its not able to discuss future product plans. And Toyota said it has nothing we are able to announce at this time.
Apple didnt respond to our request for comment.
Sara LeBlanc, GMs program manager for MyLink radio in the Spark and Sonic, notes that the design of the radio as well as opportune timing played into Chevys favor in being able to quickly implement Siri Eyes Free. We designed the MyLink radio for the Spark and Sonic to have pass-through voice [recognition], she told Wired. When you hold down the steering-wheel button, it initiates the voice rec on your phone; theres no actual voice rec in the radio. It was really designed as a way for customers of low-priced cars to have voice rec.
The pass-through feature on the MyLink radio works with any connected portable device that has voice recognition and Bluetooth, not just an iPhone with Siri. It was originally designed to only initiate phone calls, but with Siri the feature set expanded.
We worked with Apple on what Siri should be able to answer and talked with our experts on driver workload, LeBlanc says. Apple wanted drivers to be able to send and read texts, check their calendar, tune to a song in their iTunes library. They wanted all these additional features so we had to change our software.
Because the MyLink radio already had the pass-through voice recognition and the vehicles it would be installed in were scheduled to receive updated radios GM was able to incorporate Siri Eyes Free. Automakers that already have voice recognition embedded in the car wont have as easy of a time integrating it, LeBlanc says. If you take the other radios and this is true for GM as well as other automakers when the steering wheel control button is pushed, it initiates voice rec embedded in the radio, she adds. It becomes more complicated because you have two possible voice recs. Thats whats taking the other [automakers] longer.
When you have two competing [voice recognition] systems, I dont believe its going to be seamless, says Steve Witt executive vice president of Dice, a division of Audiovox, that became the first aftermarket company to integrate Siri Eyes Free into its MediaBridge product to add the feature to existing OEM systems. Working with an automotive client, Dice tested how Siri Eyes Free would work with an on-board voice engine. The cars radio gets confused, Witt adds, and in one case it just stopped and it wouldnt recognize Siri and it wouldnt recognize [the on-board] system.
While aftermarket companies like Dice can turn on a dime to get the accessories for Apples latest devices quickly to market, automaker infotainment systems are planned years before a vehicle rolls off the assembly line and typically cant be upgraded except through costly running changes.
A car that launches in the 2014 model year was [designed] up to five years ago, says LeBlanc. If its a new vehicle, they might be able to set up the [software] so it knows when to use Siri and when to use the [embedded] voice rec. And it isnt like you can figure out the coding for one radio and read it across to the other ones, she told Wired. If its already in production, then its even more complicated.
Roger Lanctot, an automotive electronics analyst with Strategy Analytics, says that ten months after Apple announced Siri Eyes Free, automakers may be having second thoughts about adding the feature and its benefits. After the initial euphoria, car makers have come to realize that Siri Eyes Free has its own limitations and has nothing specifically suited to overcoming the challenges of the automotive use case, he says. Car makers were eager to score points at the initial announcement, but Apple has yet to demonstrate an interest or focus on auto-grade, auto-enhanced, auto-specific solutions. This approach means Siri is just another speech recognition that is far from state-of-the-art for automotive use.