Article: On the Steering Wheel Siri Button

by on June 15, 2012

After Apple’s announcement on Monday that they would be working with a few auto manufacturers to essentially integrate Siri into your car, a few blew the story out of proportion and are making it sound like Apple made decisions for a number of automakers without consulting anyone. This is simply not true, and downright wrong.

Fast Company’s Austin Carr posted a great story explaining the Eyes Free feature of iOS 6 and how some automakers have gotten on board, while others are suggesting it in the future:

Since the announcement, we caught up with most all of the automakers now working with Apple–Mercedes, GM, BMW, Jaguar, to name just a few–to learn more about how Siri will integrate with your ride in the future, and when. Forstall said “a number” of automakers had committed to Siri integration within 12 months, but only a few told Fast Company that was realistic. We also learned that the steering wheel button that Apple hinted at in its presentation might not be as Apple- or Siri-specific as Jobs might have insisted on, given his celebrated obsession over branding. Instead, Apple’s taking a small step into the auto industry that’s not too different than when it promoted iPod connectivity in cars. It’s a tiptoe strategy compared to the company’s cutthroat approach to the TV, movie, and music industries.

In other words, nobody knows to what extent the system will work, but a few places read this feature as a “Siri Button” that Apple staked out a claim for. Carr continues:

However, it’s not certain whether this button is designed specifically for Siri and is Apple-branded, or whether it’s simply a generic button designed to produce connectivity with handheld devices. GM’s Fosgard couldn’t say how “it’s ultimately going to look.” But Boland, from Mercedes-Benz USA, confirms that there will not be some sort of Apple button on the steering wheel–rather, Mercedes will continue to use its own navigation buttons, which also work for Android-integrated services.

It seems everyone who offers some sort of infotainment system could easily add this feature via an option and using existing controls. One example is the Entune system found on a number of Toyotas—when an iPhone is present and has the app installed, the system acts differently, than say, a simple dumbphone. If these vehicle communication and entertainment systems are so powerful, why not rework some software and call it a day?

Once AutoBlog and later Cult of Mac got a hold of it, it seemed like a number of automakers were clueless on the announcement and had not committed any involvement, while grumblings on the Internet accused Apple of encroaching on areas that it shouldn’t, or that customers with non-iPhones wouldn’t want a Siri button. Suddenly this:

At WWDC, Forstall promised that “a number of auto manufacturers have already committed to delivering eyes-free Siri integration in the next 12 months.” Yet of all of the automakers that Apple featured (Mercedes, BMW, GM, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler, Honda), just a few could confirm they were indeed working on delivering the technology within that timeframe. One automaker even seemed unaware that Apple had held an announcement.

“We haven’t seen the statements attributed to Apple and we have nothing to announce at this time,” a Chrysler spokesperson said by email. When pressed, the spokesperson would only add that “Chrysler does not comment on future product plans.”

Others companies were much clearer on their vehicle roadmap. Mercedes-Benz’s Boland promised integration “within the next 12 months–actually, a little over six months from now.” GM said that its Chevrolet brand specifically and Apple had teamed up, and that consumers should expect a solution “within 12 months and maybe faster.” And BMW said it is “planning to have Siri integration availably by mid-2013.”

A spokesperson for Jaguar and Land Rover, both owned by the same company, confirmed the companies are working with Apple but would only add that they are “looking forward to introducing the [Siri] feature in future models.” A spokesperson for Audi said the company has not yet confirmed that the 12-month timeframe “is realistic.” And a spokesperson for Toyota said “Apple and Toyota are exploring the potential to introduce the Siri Eyes Free Mode (SEFM) interface into Toyota, Lexus, or Scion vehicles.” However, the spokesperson added, “there are no particular applications planned at this time.” (We were unable to reach Honda by press time.)

became this:

Audi told Fast Company, which contacted all nine carmakers mentioned by Apple, that it was not sure if the project could be completed in a year. A Chrysler spokesman said the company did not have any plans to announce anything.Toyota was equally as vague: “(T)here are no particular applications planned at this time.”

The headline also got a much more click-grabbing “Apple Forgot To Tell Car Manufacturers It’s Putting Siri Buttons On Their Steering Wheels”. This immediately puts the reader on the defensive that Apple is dictating what automakers do or else. How dare they?!

I suspect the preview of this new technology was simply to give people a glance at what’s down the road (no pun intended) and hopefully get some more automakers interested. As manufacturers upgrade and redesign factory radios, I suspect we’ll see this feature eventually end up in new models, much like an auxiliary jack became an iPod Dock Connector (mostly in luxury brands) and then a USB connector that can accommodate an iPod, iPhone, sometimes iPad, Android phone, and sometimes Windows Phone (in most new cars, regardless of price).

I’d bet money that most of the manufacturers won’t make the 12-month timeframe, and also won’t have a dedicated Siri button that is dead space for the millions of non-iPhone 4S (and whatever its replacement is called) users out there. In fact, depending on the car, the Bluetooth system could already bring up Siri, so long as it acts as a standard Bluetooth headset (according to Apple):

Siri also works with headphones and Bluetooth headsets. When you’re using headphones with a remote and microphone, you can press and hold the center button to talk to Siri. With a Bluetooth headset, press and hold the call button to bring up Siri.

Some cars (like mine) do some funky things, like intercepting voice commands for their own “menus” and only passing commands to the phone to answer, dial, or hangup, but as systems get more sophisticated and better phone integration is expected, I think we may see purer implementations, where the phone does the heavy-lifting and not the car.

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