Forget touch screens, we need KITT

I've test-driven several domestic cars and trucks recently, all of which feature enough state-of-the-art systems and available interactive experiences to bury their headlights in a swirling sea of electrons.

But the deeper I travel into the world of in-vehicle infotainment -- the annoying phrase meant to describe everything electronic going on in a car that has nothing to do with driving -- the more I realize that automakers have made a fundamental error.

You see, they keep trying to sell us the newest cell phone, when what we really want — is KITT.

Admittedly, I'm dating myself here in recalling the otherwise forgettable NBC series Knight Rider that made stars of David Hasselhoff and KITT, his 1982 Pontiac Trans Am, during its four year run (1982-86).

But on an hour-long drive home this week, I realized that the voice commands for the audio system in the Chrysler vehicle I was driving were different from those in the same model year Chrysler vehicle I drove home two days earlier.

It was just a slight difference, according to the help command: This one wanted me to say, "Tune to station 26" on the satellite radio before it would make the change, while the other required only that I press the same button and say, "Station 26."

Both were different from the commands I'd previously memorized to operate Ford's Sync system. And suffice it to say that after my efforts to navigate MyFord Touch, I've come to think it suffers greatly from a capitalization error: It should be spelled MyFord tOUCH.

At the core of this issue is consumers' desire to be able to tell their cars to do something, in a conversational tone, and have the vehicles respond correctly. For their own safety and the safety of other motorists, drivers don't need the ability to flip through six screen pages of pump prices to find that the cheapest fuel in the area is 41 miles away -- at least not while the car is in motion.

I will note that General Motors' OnStar system comes closest to what these systems should be, but because OnStar has a human on the other end of a phone connection, I'm disqualifying it from consideration.

Automotive designers and executives must stare at the millions of cell phones that so many of us carry and think, "Copy all the things that they can do, and I'll sell more cars."

But they miss the fundamental point of why we carry them: to increase interaction. Consumers have cell phones primarily so we can stay in touch with those around us, not because it can calculate an 18 percent tip while simultaneously getting us movie tickets.

Automakers need their in-vehicle infotainment systems to behave like the William Daniels-voiced KITT -- to have the vehicle do what it's told, or to tell the driver that the request won't be honored because it's too dangerous.

The technology to let drivers have a conversation with their vehicles may be right around the corner -- Apple's new Siri system is surprisingly close to the mark -- as long as automakers move in the right direction.

Isn't that right, KITT?

"Yes, Michael."

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