In 2011, amid one of the Cadillac brand’s many reboots, General Motors introduced the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) to its then-latest generation of luxury sedans and SUVs. CUE was a touchscreen infotainment suite, smartphone integration system, and a capacitive touch panel on the dashboard that used haptic feedback in place of physical buttons.
It was an utter disaster. Reviewers at the time, as well as owners, panned CUE’s unresponsiveness, bizarre menu layouts and lag. Car and Driver likened CUE to a sexually transmitted infection; when I was editor-in-chief of Jalopnik in the 2010s, we called it the “most hated infotainment system ever.” Though it received numerous upgrades over the years, the damage was done. CUE remains a black mark for Cadillac, and the branding has since been abandoned.
Fast forward about 10 years later, and GM thinks it can do software better than Apple and Google.
GM thinks it can do software better than Apple and Google
That’s the message underlying an announcement that GM’s forthcoming electric vehicles will not support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which means users won’t be able to project their smartphones directly onto their car’s infotainment screens to enjoy a native-like experience.
To be fair, GM has come a long way since the CUE days, and it, like every other automaker, is attempting to make huge strides for electric and connected cars. But years of terrible software from an auto industry that lagged far behind the tech industry has led to a dependence on Apple and Google to sort out its terrible interface problems. And it’s taken a toll on people’s faith in traditional car companies to deliver a software experience that doesn’t, for lack of a better term, suck.
GM’s decision sparked an immediate backlash from consumers who aren’t ready to move on from CarPlay or Android Auto yet. None of it should be surprising given the car industry’s shoddy track record with software — or the immense popularity of the Apple and Android systems. (In fact, as Reuters pointed out when it broke this story, GM once bragged of having more CarPlay- and Android Auto-compatible cars than any other automaker.)
Smartphone integration issues, infotainment systems that are difficult to operate and buggy operating systems still rank among the top complaints from new car owners. That’s why CarPlay and Android Auto became so successful; they just work, and they work in a manner that’s effectively identical to the phones people are used to using every day. Even Apple’s own research indicates nearly 80 percent of new car buyers would only consider something that supported CarPlay.
While existing Cadillac, Chevy, GMC, and Buick owners (including EV drivers) won’t be cut off from CarPlay or Android Auto, GM’s plans won’t include those systems, even though GM’s new software is powered by Google. This clearly runs counter to what buyers want, industry experts told me this week.
“Based on all of our research over the past few years, there’s definitely massive demand and interest in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto,” said Robby DeGraff, an analyst at the automotive research and marketing firm AutoPacific.
DeGraff said that in a recent trend study from his firm, the desire for those smartphone systems was topped only by requests for more USB-C outlets in cars.
“People really want this in their next new vehicle, regardless of segment, propulsion, or price point,” DeGraff added. “Furthermore, it’s puzzling GM is taking this step for its EV products, as our data show that consumers who intend to buy an EV or PHEV in the future, desire wireless Apple CarPlay / Android Auto more so than intenders of ICE [vehicles].”
But there are many reasons this move is happening, and all are symbolic of the headaches that will ensue as car companies attempt to transform into tech companies in the EV era.
Why GM picked a fight with Apple
To understand where GM’s coming from, look to its new upcoming Ultifi software platform. That may not be as sexy as 0–60 mph times and tire-roasting horsepower quotes, but it’s crucial to the EV overhaul GM is currently undertaking.
Ultifi is essentially your smartphone’s OS but in car form. It will be used in GM’s next-gen EV lineup as well as its ICE vehicles, but it’s arguably more important for the former. With EVs essentially being software-driven batteries on wheels, Ultifi will allow for over-the-air updates, more advanced automated driving assistance, connected car capabilities, and native versions of popular apps like Google Maps and Spotify. (It will also enable less palatable features, like data collection and subscription-only features. More on this later.)
But there are many reasons this move is happening, and all are symbolic of the headaches that will ensue as car companies attempt to transform into tech companies in the EV era
Many car companies are undertaking similar efforts. Look at Volkswagen, which has had plenty of challenges too on the software front but is pushing forward with a unified software architecture for all of its brands that will include a native app store. So if cars are going to be defined by software and the user experience in a few years, it’s understandable why GM, VW, and others don’t want to cede that experience to third-party tech companies.
In GM’s case, some of these decisions seem to have to do with maps and plans for automated driving. Edmunds posited that a native navigation system may work better with Super Cruise or its more advanced lidar-powered upcoming sibling, Ultra Cruise. Additionally, Mike Hichme, the executive director of digital cockpit experience at GM, told Reuters that it doesn’t want to design features that could leave out people who don’t own a cellphone.
Then again, the average new EV costs around $65,000; who’s buying such an expensive, high-tech vehicle and doesn’t own a smartphone? I’d love to talk to that person if they exist. (If you are that person and you do exist, send me an email. Or send The Verge’s New York office a fax, in your case. I’ll swing by and pick it up when I have time.)
Ultimately, however, this is about control. Whether drivers want it or not — and I suspect a great many do not — this next generation of cars will be about consumer data and subscription features as much as they’ll be about instant electric torque and eliminating carbon emissions. The auto industry is banking on data and subscriptions being massively lucrative revenue streams. GM alone hopes to grow its subscription revenue more than tenfold to $25 billion per year by 2030. Why would any automaker want to cut Apple in on that or be forced to play ball with its software? And neither Apple nor Google charges car companies to use these features; owners don’t have to subscribe to them monthly, either.
“From a business perspective, having more control over what happens within your vehicles is extremely valuable for both vehicle development as well as the opportunities presented by capturing and repackaging data for analysis and marketing,” Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights, told The Verge.
“From a business perspective, having more control over what happens within your vehicles is extremely valuable”
“That said, GM is picking a battle with what is arguably one of the most culturally relevant and influential consumer brands in history, specifically the one that most would credit with creating the touchscreen obsession that automakers are currently leaning into,” he added.
Ironically, GM is doing the same thing Apple and other tech companies have done as well. It’s not like your iOS experience isn’t highly curated, tightly controlled, and only open to certain apps — after Apple takes its own generous cut. And even Apple’s next-gen CarPlay system is asking a lot; soon, it will take over the entire user experience, including the digital dashboard. For any car company investing in software, that’s a big pill to swallow.
But customer preferences are what they are now. And years of dealing with frustrations from systems like CUE, which became exponentially outclassed by the smartphone experience (and then CarPlay) as each year went on, have added up.
“Talk to anyone that’s been in a vehicle with this feature and they’re often instantly sold on having to have it,” DeGraff said. “I hear constant chatter about it, and to give you even more proof of how desirable Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are, consumers with older vehicles are now upgrading their factory (DIN) head units with aftermarket replacement touchscreens that offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.” How many people can even name the other infotainment systems on the market?
“GM is picking a battle with what is arguably one of the most culturally relevant and influential consumer brands in history”
One of the rare exceptions to this trend is Tesla, which has never offered Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. But Tesla’s an odd animal in the auto industry. It’s long seen itself more as a tech company that makes cars — the same pivot all these legacy automakers are trying to make — and CEO Elon Musk is infamous for sparring with competitors. Plus, Tesla’s in-car software experience, while far from perfect, has largely been markedly better than many old-school car companies. GM may be seeking to emulate this approach on some level, but it’s hard to imitate the way Tesla’s always marched to the beat of its own drum.
Then again, some Tesla fans have been clamoring for these features for years, and some intrepid developers have even made various hacks and aftermarket parts to enable CarPlay on those vehicles. That alone says a lot.
The war for your screen
But GM’s decision to walk away from CarPlay and Android Auto could be the start of a larger trend. Even as automakers turn to companies like Google to help build infotainment systems and software suites, it’s entirely plausible more of them will want to abandon third-party smartphone projection systems in the future. Your car, your screen, and the data they collect are about to become extremely profitable revenue streams. Nobody wants to play nice and share.
For now, that feels premature. The car market in 2023 is dominated by huge consumer demand for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. That’s probably why other car companies like Ford, Volvo, BMW and Hyundai say they’re sticking with these features. Even if they secretly don’t want to, admitting it runs the risk of sending buyers to other dealerships.
Drury said he feels it’s unlikely GM will change its mind on this decision, despite the backlash, but he warned that whatever the company has up its sleeve had better be world-class — not another CUE.
“While GM is unlikely to fully reverse course, one would expect their replacement app to be up to snuff and that any initial reactions of dismay from Apple owners are signs of minor annoyance rather than an outright refusal to purchase vehicles from The General,” Drury said, using a nickname for GM.
“For many Apple consumers, there is no replacement for an iPhone’s seamless connectivity to the rest of their world. GM better hope consumers still feel the same about GM vehicles.”