Is the Apple Siri steering wheel control pushing the right buttons?

Several major automotive vehicle manufacturers are planning to implement a steering wheel button that can be used to activate Siri functionality, according to IMS Research (recently acquired by IHS Inc.).


The automotive news from Apple’s annual developers’ event, WWDC (June 11-15, 2012 in San Francisco), is that several major automotive vehicle manufacturers are planning to implement a steering wheel button that can be used to activate Siri functionality. The question is whether or not vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will benefit from integrating Apple features into an infotainment market that IMS Research estimates to be worth $20 billion in 2011.

Apple has been improving the functionality and feature set of Siri, making it more applicable for in-vehicle applications. In addition, the move by Apple to use its own in-house mapping app to provide turn-by-turn navigation and crowd-sourced traffic data allows it to compete head-to-head with the service offered to Android phone users through Google maps. This is understandably attractive to vehicle OEMS: for a relatively low cost they can allow drivers to significantly improve the driving experience, particularly where the vehicle has no navigation system.

3 Most Preferred Ways to Control Infotainment. Source: IMS Research

Alastair Hayfield, research director at IMS Research, said, “Vehicle OEMs need to ask themselves a question: Is there a risk that providing tighter integration with Apple will damage their own infotainment developments? On balance the answer is no.” The infotainment system in a modern vehicle is one of the most viewed and interacted with surfaces. It is as important to the brand and styling of a vehicle as is the exterior look and performance. Vehicle manufacturers are cognisant of this and are looking at a slew of consumer electronics technologies to ensure drivers stay engaged with the car’s features and systems. The one risk comes from negative consumer experiences with Siri (or similar) in the car and who is to blame – Apple or the vehicle OEM. Apple customers are known for their loyalty and might perceive the fault to reside with the vehicle OEM.

Where the Siri activation might be most successful is with younger drivers. Unable to afford premium segment cars or infotainment options, younger drivers want to be able to make use of the capabilities of their smartphones whilst driving. Vehicle manufacturers will be savvy to introduce the ability to activate Siri from the steering wheel as they can ‘capture’ drivers whilst they are young and turn them into brand ambassadors.

The 3 Most 'Perceived' Safe Ways for Controlling Infotainment. Source: IMS Research

Beyond vehicle OEMs, is this a death knell for personal navigation device (PND) manufacturers and telematics service providers? It’s common knowledge that the PND market is already struggling, with this announcement putting additional pressure on PND suppliers in the face of rising smartphone sales. In a recent consumer survey conducted by IMS Research it was found that 50% of US car owners with a smartphone and navigation app make use of the app at least once a week. In fact, 25% of U.S. car owners with a smartphone and navigation app are using their navigation app every single day.

Telematics service providers shouldn’t be overly concerned by this announcement. Services like GM’s OnStar or BMW Assist provide value added features to clients that are ‘above and beyond’ what can be achieved through a smartphone.

In IMS Research’s consumer research, 27% of consumers wanted to be able to control their vehicle’s infotainment system through their smartphone. In fact, this was the leading choice, followed by push buttons (16%) and steering wheel controls (14%). Why then are vehicle manufacturers looking to integrate voice control? In the same study, IMS Research asked consumers to rank the control systems they perceived to be most safe. Overwhelmingly, voice control (80%) and steering wheel control (72%) were perceived to be the safest ways of interacting with the vehicle whilst driving. Being able to activate Siri from the steering wheel neatly combines both methods.

The inclusion of a steering wheel button that activates Siri is a smart move by vehicle OEMs. It gives drivers the control they want and appeals to the ‘next generation’ of drivers. From a competitive environment standpoint this represents a further encroachment by Apple into automotive, but is still a long way from market control and dominance.

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