I’m as much a sucker as the next guy for a really killer app infotainment center. I was fascinated by Ford’s Sync system, because it was such a quantum leap over the “car stereo.” It not only played music from iPods, but from portable hard discs. It offered satellite radio, navigation, access to Web-based services like Pandora, voice recognition, and a level of complexity pleasing to any tech geek. No wonder every other automaker emulated it.


As it happens, MyFord Touch, or whatever the company’s calling it now, had a reach that exceeded its grasp. The system has been glitchy, and Ford has had to field a barrage of complaints — just as Research in Motion did this week when all those Blackberrys (including mine!) stopped working. But wait, there’s more: The very complexity of in-car entertainment systems has led to charges that they needlessly distract drivers.


Cadillac made a splash this week with its new Cue system (at right), initially for the XTS in April and then on all the cars for 2012. It’s an iPad2 on wheels, with “proximity sensing” that can tell your hand is approaching (within eight inches) and expand its icon offerings, and a “pinch and squeeze” so you can up- or downsize type or graphics. You can even custom design your own instrument panel. Wow, that’s cool, but you’re going to want to look at the eye-popping displays, right? GM’s own photo shows engineering manager Mike Hichme zooming in for an adjustment, his eyes firmly on the screen.


To be fair, Cadillac says it has reduced distracting on-screen clutter by taking what is typically 20 infotainment buttons and reducing them to four. And, yes, voice recognition is part of the deal. Cadillac says its system is “natural,” letting people “speak logically with fewer specific commands to recall stored media or input navigation destinations.” I hope it works as intended. I attended a recent Chevrolet rollout where a brand-new voice recognition system failed to deliver on its considerable promise.


GM’s Micky Bly said in a conference call that Cue will “redefine the vehicle experience,” which sounds like hype but, for many, it’s actually true. We’re all far more dependent on our smartphones and tablets than we were even a couple of years ago — look how anxious people got this week when their Blackberrys stopped working! And now the car extends the connected experience, only you also have to drive.


Bly said that connectivity “has moved up the value chain from 25th in the needs space to third or fourth, and really because of the cellphone.” He also said that Cue allows consumers to access and channel the information on that phone without having to actually touch it.  So, for instance, you can listen to your Pandora Bob Dylan channel through your phone but control it via voice controls that are part of Cue. That should work OK, but when you lose your cell signal you also lose Mr. Dylan and his friends.


Here’s a really interesting feature — haptic feedback. I’d never heard the word “haptic” either, but Audi has a whole lab built around what basically means getting the right feel to controls and switches. Audi goes through hundreds of tiny micro switches to find one that has exactly the right quality feel when you click from one setting to another. When Cadillac says it used “precision-milled buttons for Cue, you know its haptic folks were working overtime, too.


Haptics apply to touchscreens, too. The Audi engineers demonstrated how they can simulate the illusion that you’ve pushed down on what is actually a fixed, flat surface. And Cadillac does exactly the same thing with Cue. “Buttons on the fully capacitive faceplate pulse when pressed to acknowledge the driver’s commands and helps keep the driver’s eye on the road.” Nice, but you’re still going to look at that faceplate to visually locate the buttons.


The whole thing is built on an open Linux platform, so maybe users can suggest improvements or even contribute some useful code. Already built in is a fair amount of customizing options, and you can store up to 60 “favorites” (addresses, phone numbers, and music) along the bottom of the screen. There’s a controller on the steering wheel, and further connectivity through GM’s OnStar system. The ARM 11 3 processor is said to be capable of 3.5 times the processing power of current infotainment, so waiting for applications to load shouldn’t be a problem.


Don’t get me wrong, I think Cue is really interesting. I hope to be able to try it out soon. As I said, I’m a sucker for a killer app. Here's a run through of Cue's features. Let me note here that when I tried to watch the video during the online launch, I encountered an error message:



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